Neuralgia: Nerves on Fire
by Sara Stringer
Neuralgia is a severe, stabbing and burning pain that occurs along the length of a peripheral nerve. At initial onset, the nerve pain could last for days, and then disappear for weeks or months only to return again at regular intervals. As the condition progresses, the intervals become shorter and the pain more frequent.
Although the pain is sometimes attributed to nerve damage, neuralgias are generally considered to be of unknown cause because there are no noticeable changes to the structure of the affected nerve. However, there are certain conditions that can increase the likelihood of developing neuralgia, including multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and viral or bacterial infections. Neuralgia is also more common in the elderly.
Types of Neuralgia
Neuralgia can occur in any part of the body, there are three types of neuralgia that occur most often: postherpetic neuralgia, trigeminal neuralgia, and glossopharyngeal neuralgia.
Postherpetic neuralgia is a direct result of a shingles outbreak. Shingles is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chicken pox. With chicken pox, the virus is in the blood and causes the characteristic rash, along with the usual viral symptoms of sneezing, coughing, and fever. Once the chicken pox virus has run its course, the varicella-zoster virus retreats to the nerve cells where it can lie dormant for decades. If the virus is activated, it becomes shingles – a painful rash down the length of the nerves in the face, neck, and upper body.
Shingles only occurs in people who have been exposed to the actual chicken pox virus, not the vaccine. The elderly, individuals with compromised immune systems from disease, and those taking immunosuppressant medications are at greatest risk for developing shingles. Because the virus stays in the nerves, it is possible to have multiple shingles outbreaks.
Antiviral medications might reduce the length and severity of the shingles outbreak, but the only other treatment is to allow the virus to run its course. Pain killers or nerve blocks (injections that turn off the pain signals in the nerves) could reduce the severity of the symptoms. Shingles can be prevented with a vaccine, and individuals over age 60 with healthy immune systems are encouraged to get vaccinated.
Trigeminal neuralgia is pain along a cranial nerve that transmits sensation from the face to the brain. When the nerve is working properly, it enables you to register normal sensations like the heat of the sun on your face, your cheeks stretching as you open your mouth, or someone kissing your cheek. If the nerve is affected by neuralgia, then even the slightest sensations become extremely painful.
Trigeminal neuralgia is believed to be caused by a blood vessel pressing on the nerve at the point where it exits the skull. The condition may respond to pain killers and nerve blocks but, over time, the attacks can become more frequent and painful until painkillers are no longer effective. Severe cases of transgeminal neuralgia require surgery to relieve the pressure of the blood vessels on the base of the nerve.
Transgeminal neuralgia occurs often in the elderly, but it is unclear as to why. To date, there is no known way to prevent it from occurring.
Glossopharyngeal neuralgia is pain along the cranial nerves that transmit sensation from the throat and tongue to the brain. When the nerve is working properly, it enables you to register normal sensations such as food on your tongue and moving down your throat, and the temperature of air inhaled through your mouth. The nerve also has some motor functions. If the nerve is affected by neuralgia, then normal sensations in the neck and throat become painful.
Glossopharyngeal neuralgia has no known cause, and may or may not respond to pain killers, nerve blocks, or anti-seizure medications if doctors believe that seizure-like muscle spasms are causing the pain.
Contact your doctor if you believe that you have neuralgia.
If you are a diabetic, your doctor might refer you to a specialist to help you monitor and manage your blood sugar more closely, since blood sugar can damage the nerves and contribute to neuralgia.
If you have not been diagnosed with diabetes, or any other illness, your doctor might conduct screening test for diabetes, MS, or other illnesses that might contribute to neuralgia.
At any rate, seeking medical attention can get you the treatment you need to reduce the severity of your symptoms.
About the Author
Sara Stringer is freelance writer who enjoys writing about natural health alternatives. In her spare time, she enjoys maintaining an active lifestyle through swimming and practicing yoga.