Definition and Overview

Neuralgia refers to pain caused by problems with nerve signals in the nervous system. It is not an illness in itself, but a symptom of a disorder or injury.

The nervous system is composed of the central and peripheral nervous systems. The former consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The latter, on the other hand, is made up of a network of nerves. These nerves transmit information from the brain to the rest of the body and vice-versa. Pain caused by the condition can be felt along the pathway of the damaged nerve.

There are different types of the condition depending on which nerve (or part of the body) is affected. The most common are the following:

  • Occipital neuralgia - This type causes pain at the bottom part of the skull near the neck. Often, the pain spreads to other parts of the head.

  • Post-herpetic neuralgia - This occurs after the onset of shingles caused by the zoster virus. It affects the same area where the rashes have formed.

  • Atypical neuralgia - Known as ATN for short, this form exhibits as sudden attacks of sharp, stabbing pain in the jaw or cheek. The pain sometimes resembles an electric shock. This is caused by damage to one of the cranial nerves. The pain can make eating and chewing unbearable.

Causes of Condition

Damage to the nerve that causes pain can be due to:

  • Trauma or surgery - Wounds caused by injuries and surgery can lead to nerve damage.

  • Infections - These include shingles, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS. The list also includes Lyme disease and brain infections.

  • Autoimmune diseases - These include SLE and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

  • Chronic diseases - These include diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and spinal column problems.

  • Tumours - Abnormal growths can compress the nerves.

Key Symptoms

The symptoms may vary. This depends on the location of the damaged nerve in the body. Nerve damage results in localised pain. The pain can start as mild and progress over time. However, patients can also experience severe pain right away. The pain may come and go in a span of months or years.

When left untreated, the condition can cause the muscles to become weak and overly sensitive. This can result in numbness and tingling sensations.

The symptoms are more severe if the autonomic nervous system is affected. This can cause the lost of muscle coordination. This can prevent a patient from speaking, swallowing, or breathing properly. It can also cause paralysis.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

There are no specific tests for neuralgia. Doctors use a number of tests to rule out all possible causes of the symptoms. The patient is diagnosed with neuralgia if he or she has been cleared of all disorders or diseases that can cause nerve pain.

Patients may see a general doctor first. The doctor will perform a physical examination to identify the affected nerve. He or she will also review the patient’s symptoms. Based on the results of the tests and where the pain comes from, the doctor may need to make a referral. Patients may be asked to see a brain specialist or a dentist.

Blood and imaging tests are used to make a diagnosis. A test that measures how fast an electrical impulse moves through the nerves is also used. These can rule out other disorders. Doctors will provide treatment based on the cause of the problem. This may involve the use of:

  • Medications - Doctors may prescribe the same drugs used to treat depression or epilepsy. This is because the condition often does not respond to standard painkillers.

  • Nerve block - Doctors may elect to inject medications directly to the affected nerve. This can reduce inflammation. The nerve may also be heated using a needle. Both treatments prevent the damaged nerve from carrying pain signals to the brain.

  • Surgery - Surgery is used if the nerve is compressed. It is often used to remove tumours around the affected nerve.

  • Physical therapy - This can improve the symptoms of the condition. Its goals are to reduce pain and strengthen the affected muscles.

  • Alternative therapy - Stress management and acupuncture can also help improve the symptoms of the condition.

In many cases, doctors combine two or more of the treatment options listed above to achieve better outcomes.

It is important for patients to seek treatment for the condition. When left untreated, it can lead to permanent nerve damage. It can also result in physical disability and chronic pain. Patients are also at risk of paralysis and serious infections.

References:

  • Healthgrades Editorial Staff. “What is neuralgia?” (2017) Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://www.healthgrades.com/conditions/neuralgia

  • “Neuralgia” (2015, December). Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/symptom-checker

  • “Postherpetic Neuralgia Physical Therapies.” (2010 September) National Pain Foundation Web site. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from http://www.nationalpainfoundation.org/articles/522/physical-therapies

  • Tidy, Colin MD. “Neuropathic Pain” (2016, December 28) Patient Platform Limited. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://patient.info/health/neuropathic-pain

  • “Trigeminal Neuralgia” (2016, February). National Health Services. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/trigeminal-neuralgia/

Share This Information: