Rare but debilitating, neuralgia causes long-term and, oftentimes, debilitating pain. Australian researchers found that 8% of patients have this as a complication of shingles, and 26% are diabetics. Other people experience different types of neuralgia pain caused by disease, injury or several other factors.
Although anyone can suffer from neuralgia, it is most common in women over 40 years old and in the elderly. Some patients mistake severe pain for a heart attack or another life-threatening condition. The pain from some neuralgias can be so unbearable that some people consider suicide.
The following information will help you understand what causes neuralgia, its symptoms, and what treatment options can assist you in treating this painful condition.
What is Neuralgia?
Neuralgia is derived from the Greek words neuro and algos, which mean nerve and pain, respectively. Neuralgia is a neuropathic pain that causes severe pain along the course of a nerve. Sometimes, the nerve pain is triggered by emotional stress or physical trauma, but it often occurs without reason.
Neuralgic pain is typically felt as piercing, stabbing, or as an electric shock that originates in the nerve pathways. For example, neuralgic facial pain starts as a shock in the face and spreads along the branches of affected nerves to other parts of the body such as the upper neck, chest and shoulders.
Different Types of Neuralgia
There are several types of neuralgias but they all result in severe and often constant pain. Some neuralgias can be extremely painful to the point where even light touches or seemingly innocent movements, such as walking, may trigger excruciating pain. The common types of neuralgias are the following:
This type of pain is due to a disorder of the cranial nerve. It usually affects only one side of the face at a time and can be triggered by chewing, speaking or brushing the hair. The severity of trigeminal neuralgias varies from case to case depending on nerve damage extent and other factors.
This type of neuralgia causes severe pain in or around the eye, characterised by a sharp stabbing sensation that may last from hours to days before disappearing again for some time. This pattern continues until treatment starts, and it may cause debilitating facial pain.
Caused by the herpes simplex virus that attacks nerve cells, this neuralgia pain is experienced by people who have had shingles. Pain is felt where the outbreak of shingles occurred. People who suffer from neuralgic pain due to herpes infections describe it as extremely sharp and stabbing. Postherpetic neuralgia can be very difficult to treat because it arises after the herpes infection has already healed.
Neuralgia of the occipital nerves causes pain at the back of the head and neck. People who suffer from neuralgic pain for this reason describe it as a sharp, shooting and debilitating sensation that can be triggered by light touches or turning one's head.
This condition is caused by irritated nerves in the thoracic spine. Intercostal pain can spread throughout the rib cage and belly area, usually on just one side of the body at a time. Neuralgic stomach pain is so severe that some people mistake it for symptoms of heart attack or gastrointestinal problems.
Symptoms of Neuralgia
The symptoms of neuralgia vary depending on the transmission of pain signals, which differs depending on the type of neuralgia, severity, and other factors such as location of involved nerves or any additional injuries. Common neuralgia symptoms include:
- Intense pain that can be constant or periodic
- Pins and needles sensation
- Muscle tightness
- Causes of Neuralgia
Neuralgia causes are diverse. Some neuralgias are often caused by blood vessel inflammation, vascular compression, degeneration of organs or tissues or tumours that affect the spinal cord or brain. The neuropathic pain can also be caused by other conditions such as diabetes.
Other neuralgia causes are infection, trauma to the head or spine, or multiple sclerosis. There are neuralgias that don't have an apparent cause. For instance, neuralgia of the upper limb, with its pain appearing in an arm or hand without any previous nerve damage, is called idiopathic neuralgia - meaning there's no known reason why this condition occurs.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Neuralgia
The diagnosis is made based on medical history and physical examination. Sometimes MRI scans are used to rule out other possible causes. Although neuralgia cannot be cured completely, many neuralgias can be managed effectively with various neuralgia treatments. These treatments are generally nonsurgical and include pain and anti-inflammatory medications, anti-seizure drugs and antidepressant medications as well.
The first step of neuralgia treatment is to eliminate or reduce the causes of neuralgia. Common treatments for nerve pain caused by vascular problems, nerve compression and infections include antiviral therapy, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) and valaciclovir (Valtrex), and surgical treatment in severe cases. These therapies limit the damage caused by neuralgia during its early stages. You should note, however, that neuralgias caused by a viral infection may require a longer treatment period lasting six months or more.
Natural Treatments for Neuralgia
The most common non-medical treatments for neuralgia include acupuncture, massage therapy and physical therapy. The following lifestyle changes are other natural neuralgia treatments that many doctors recommend:
- Sticking to a healthy diet
- Avoiding sun exposure
- Reducing stress
- Relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation
- Hot baths
- Drinking plenty of water
- Getting enough sleep
- Avoiding strenuous activities
You should also consider using natural products for pain relief at home, including medical tape, cooling gels and hot water bottles. When neuralgias are accompanied by other severe conditions, such as lupus or multiple sclerosis, medical drugs may become necessary.
In most cases, nerve pain becomes entirely manageable once the appropriate treatment procedure has been applied. When the pain is less significant but still bothersome, you should discuss your symptoms with your doctor. It is also recommended that you see a neurologist if your symptoms begin affecting your daily life or career.