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Nerve Pain: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Options

Reviewed on 5/11/2016

What Nerve Pain Feels Like

A man walking on hot coals.

The perception of pain varies with each individual; terms such as stabbing, prickling, burning, tingling, and other descriptions have been used. Nerve pain is difficult to live with but in most individuals, it can be reduced. Nerve pain is also called neuropathic pain.

Understanding Nerve Pain

A hand holding a lit match.

Nerve pain is usually due to damaged nerves that send false signals that result in chronic pain. Also, the signals may not function to register the pain associated with an injury normally. In a case like this, the person may lack a pain response indicating injury (for example, someone who has diabetes with neuropathy in the feet may not register a foot injury when it occurs).

Nerve Pain Triggers

A group of business men and women in line.

Some individuals develop unusual triggers that make them overly sensitive to certain conditions because of heightened sensitivity (hypersensitivity) of the nerves to stimulation. For example, nerve sensitivity to touch can cause pain in some individuals with herpes zoster; they can’t tolerate clothing or sheets touching the infected area. Other nerve damage can result in painful body positions during standing or sitting.

Loss of Feeling

Gloved hands typing on computer keyboard.

Not all nerve damage results in pain. Loss of feeling or numbness may occur. Although it may not be painful, the numbness usually results in decreased sensitivity of the sense of touch that can interfere with dexterity in the hands. This can make activities like typing, tying one’s shoes, or playing a musical instrument difficult.

Nerve Pain and Sleep

A woman sleepless in bed.

Some nerve pain is worse at night and as a result, the individual can have difficulty sleeping. This loss of sleep can cause additional problems so people with this type of nerve pain need to discuss the problem with their doctor to receive early treatment.

Losing Balance

A woman spilling a tray of water glasses.

Numbness or reduction/loss of the sense of touch can be dangerous for a patient because it affects balance and muscle strength. Such patients may need to use items such as braces, canes, or walkers to prevent falls.

Unseen Injuries

A woman touching her foot.

Although some nerve damage may result in numbness instead of pain, the numbness may mask damage to traumatized extremities like the feet. Individuals with this type of nerve damage can benefit buy regularly examining their extremities for possible overlooked injuries.

Nerve Pain Progression

A woman massaging her hand.

Nerve pain often is progressive, especially if the root cause (for example, diabetes) is not treated. The usual progression of nerve pain is that it begins far away from the brain and spinal cord (hands and feet) and spreads backwards (retrograde) towards the arms and legs. With appropriate treatment, the progression may be halted and, in some cases, reversed.

Assessing Your Pain

A female patient speaking with her doctor.

Your doctor is your partner in controlling nerve pain. By answering all questions asked (pain type, duration, and how it has changed your lifestyle), you help your doctor to determine the cause of the pain and how to treat it.

Conditions That Cause Nerve Pain

An elderly woman holding a blood glucose monitor.

Although some people develop nerve pain for no known reason, many people develop it because of a certain health problem such as diabetes, shingles, or cancer. Treating such conditions is very important because such treatments can indirectly reduce or stop the pain. However, it’s possible to treat the pain accompanying these conditions while undergoing treatment for the conditions themselves.

OTC Treatments for Nerve Pain

A woman applying topical cream to hand.

Over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers drugs are often the first medicines to reduce or stop nerve pain. The components may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen. Some OTCs may be incorporated into creams, gels, ointments, oils, or sprays that are applied to the skin overlying the painful area.

Prescription Drugs for Nerve Pain

A bottle of prescription medication.

There are many different prescription drugs that may help to reduce nerve pain. They range from powerful painkillers to drugs that were originally used for depression or seizures but have efficacy in reducing nerve pain. However, some of these prescription drugs may be addictive, so you and your doctor need to find a treatment plan that works for you without causing you additional problems.

Natural Treatments for Nerve Pain

A woman getting acupuncture treatment.

Some people with nerve pain respond to other treatments termed complementary, natural, or alternative treatments. For example, acupuncture may help some individuals while dietary supplements (such as vitamin B-12) may help others. However, you and your doctor should discuss the use of these treatments and supplements to be sure they don’t interfere with other medical therapies that you may be using.

Taking Control of Your Health

People paddling canoes in a lake.

Although doctor-directed treatments for nerve pain may be effective, most doctors agree that when the patient commits to creating a better lifestyle (exercise, good diet, and weight loss, if necessary) it will likely improve the chances for further pain control.

Nerve Pain: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Options

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