Nerve Pain

What is nerve pain?

Nerve pain is a catchall phrase that is used to refer to a loosely associated group of pain disorders. It’s somewhat of a curious use of the phrase because, in a sense, all pain is nerve pain. Pain would not occur without nerves and the nervous system. No matter what the cause of pain, messages related to the cause are nerve impulses that travel along a system of nerves in the body, including the spinal cord and brain. So, again, in a sense, all pain is nerve pain. Nonetheless, the phrase ‘nerve pain’ is used to refer to a group of pain disorders that have some loosely associated features.

While not an exhaustive list, pain disorders that tend to get loosely referred to as nerve pain are the following:

There is no single feature that all these conditions have in common. Instead, they all have some features, which are associated with nerve symptoms. These nerve symptoms are the following:

  • Burning or electrical-like pain
  • Numbness and/or tingling
  • Heightened sensitivities to pain or touch

Sometimes, these symptoms are associated with actual nerve damage, such as in post-surgical pain or neuropathy. Sometimes, though, it is associated with excessively reactive and sensitive nerves, such as in fibromyalgia and complex regional pain syndrome.

Is there a cure for nerve pain?

Typically, there are no cures for nerve pain symptoms and the pain disorders associated with them. Healthcare providers and their patients focus on management of the symptoms. Chronic pain management has two broad goals:

  • Reduce symptoms to the extent possible
  • Reduce the emotional distress and functional impairments that are associated with the symptoms

The first goal involves reducing pain and other symptoms. The second goal is two-fold: to reduce the fear, anger, anxiety, depression or sleep problems that tend to go along with living with chronic pain, and reducing the sense of disability that tends to occur with pain. Overall, these goals amount to assisting the patient to live well, work, and be involved in life, despite having some chronic nerve pain symptoms.

The healthcare system has different ways it pursues chronic pain management. Broadly speaking, there are three different types of pain clinics in our healthcare system:

  • Pain clinics that focus on surgical and/or interventional procedures (surgeries, injections, nerve-burning procedures, and the like)
  • Pain clinics that focus on long-term medication management (such as the long-term use of narcotic pain medications)
  • Pain clinics that focus on chronic pain rehabilitation (such as interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation programs)

All three types of clinics treat nerve pain symptoms and the chronic pain disorders associated with them.

Therapies & procedures for nerve pain

Common symptom management therapies include lidocaine patches, antidepressant medications, anticonvulsant medications, opioid medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, epidural steroid injection, nerve burning procedures called radiofrequency neuroablations, implantable spinal cord stimulators, surgeries, and chronic pain rehabilitation programs.

Most, but not all, of these therapies have been shown in research to be effective in reducing pain. It is important to note, however, that ‘effective’ in this context does not mean ‘curative.’ Rather, it means that many of these therapies are helpful in reducing pain, but some degree of pain will typically remain. Also, it is important to note that these therapies, even the ones with demonstrated effectiveness, are not all equally effective. The research shows that some are more effective than others.

Date of publication: April 27, 2012

Date of last modification: October 23, 2015

Murray J. McAllister, PsyD, is a pain psychologist and consults to health systems on improving pain. He is the editor and founder of the Institute for Chronic Pain (ICP). The ICP is an educational and public policy think tank. In its mission is to lead the field in making pain management more empirically supported, the ICP provides academic quality information on chronic pain that is approachable to patients and their families. 

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