Nerves allow is to feel, sense, react, move, and function. Nerve pain symptoms can affect our ability to do all of that. Nerve pain can be chronic or acute, and is believed to affect more than 15 million people. To appreciate how complex nerve pain can be to diagnose and treat, it’s important to understand the scope of the human nervous system and the number of factors that impair normal function.
The human body contains billions of nerve cells. Neurogenetic scientists at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center estimate that the human body has over 100 billion nerve cells. The central nervous system, which is responsible for almost all human function, sends messages and information to the body via 43 pairs of nerves that span approximately 46 miles within the body.
Despite these significant numbers, all nerves in the body fall into one of three classifications: autonomic nerves, sensory nerves and motor nerves. Autonomic nerves are responsible for the automatic or involuntary functions such as breathing, digestion, blood pressure and body temperature regulation. Motor nerves correlate to movement such as walking or writing, and sensory nerves convey information from the skin to the brain, allowing us to feel temperature, texture, and sensation.
Causes of Nerve Pain
Nerve Pain can be the result of illness, injury or disease. It can be acute, occurring immediately, or sporadic, happening on occasion. Nerve pain can chronic, requiring years of treatment and therapy. Neuropathic pain typically does not begin and end abruptly, but is a condition that develops over a period of time that is typically related to an injury or related illness. Early symptoms may present as tingling in the feet and hands. Advanced symptoms can be more severe and debilitating. Diabetes, alcoholism, stroke and shingles are examples of illnesses that can cause neuropathic (nerve) pain.
Injury can also trigger the onset of nerve pain. A car accident or sport-related accident that impacts the spine can cause referred nerve pain, as can repetitive use injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Even emotional trauma can be a trigger for neuropathic pain.
Different Types of Nerve Pain and Symptoms
Just as nerve pain can be caused by a variety of factors, the type of pain experienced can be mild to severe, inconvenient to debilitating. Nerve pain related to the sciatic nerve, for example, can cause a sensation of tingling in the feet or numbness in the toes that is inconvenient. However, the same sciatic nerve pain can also cause such acute sensation in the lower back and leg that a patient is unable to stand without assistance or even walk.
Neuropathic pain related to shingles can be manageable, yet the same nerves can trigger a debilitating migraine headache. It should be noted that nerve pain that begins as a mild tingling or numbness can quickly – or over time – increase in severity and intensity, and should be communicated to a medical professional as soon as possible.
When More Than One Nerve is Affected
Polynueropathy is medically defined as several nerves in different parts of the body being affected at the same time. Polyneuropathy – also called peripheral neuropathy – can affect the automatic, sensory and motor nerves. An estimated 20 million people in the United States suffer from one of the 100+ known types of peripheral neuropathy.
Individuals who have Diabetes are at an elevated risk for polyneuropathy, as the disease is known to cause nerve damage. Alcoholic neuropathy, with stems from abuse of alcohol is another type of polyneuropathy. Alcohol is known to be a toxin to nerve tissue, and individuals who abuse alcohol may experience numbness in their limbs, in addition to degeneration in vision and other sensory nerves that care damaged by the toxins.
Alcoholic neuropathy is a condition that develops over a period of time and should not be confused with the short-term physical consequences of being drunk.
Treatment Solutions for Nerve Pain
There are several options for treating nerve pain. One of the first courses of action is to address any injury or illness that may be causing pain, with the expectation that there will be a reduction in sensation as the body begins to heal. For patients who have chronic nerve pain that continues after an initial healing period, relief can be found through the use of topical and/or oral or injectable pain-killers. Steroids, NSAIDs, and opiates are all used to help relieve nerve pain.
Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic, biofeedback, massage, physical therapy, nutrition, and hypnosis may provide relief from the symptoms of neuropathic pain.
Nerve pain can be a sign of a serious underlying medical condition. Any nerve pain that is chronic or recurring and does not improve or go away after a known injury has healed should be discussed with a medical professional who can properly diagnose and treat the condition.