Nerve pain — also known as neuropathic pain or neuralgia — is an uncomfortable and often debilitating condition that can negatively impact your quality of life. Nerve pain is typically caused by an underlying condition that irritates and damages the nerves.1
In this article, we’ll discuss what nerve pain is and what conditions or illnesses cause it. We’ll also cover the symptoms and sensations of nerve pain so you’ll know when to talk to your doctor.
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How Does Your Nervous System Work?
To better understand what nerve pain is, it’s important to first understand how your nerves communicate and send signals. Your nervous system is made of billions of nerve cells called neurons that send electrical signals throughout your body to communicate.2,3
There are two parts to your nervous system — the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system. The CNS consists of your brain and spinal cord, whereas your peripheral nervous system contains the nerves throughout your arms, legs, and organs. All of your nerves work together to coordinate organ function, movement, and sensations, sending signals between your brain and spinal cord out to the rest of your body.
Causes of Neuropathic Pain
Nerve pain occurs when your nerves become irritated or damaged, making them send the wrong signals to your pain centers. Most nerve pain is caused by an underlying health condition like diabetes, a viral infection, or cancer.4
The most common cause of nerve damage and pain is diabetes. According to the Cleveland Clinic, diabetes accounts for around 30 percent of neuropathy cases. Uncontrolled blood sugar and cholesterol levels in people with type 1 or 2 diabetes (T1D or T2D) can lead to widespread nerve damage.4,5
Shingles is a viral infection that can develop years after a chickenpox infection. The chickenpox virus can become active again after lying dormant (latent) in your body, causing a painful, burning rash with blisters all over your body. Shingles also damages the nerves in your skin, interfering with the pain signals they send and receive. Even after your rash has resolved, you may have leftover pain in the same area. One of the most common complications of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia or widespread, burning nerve pain.6
HIV is a sexually transmitted infection that weakens your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off bacteria and viruses. While HIV doesn’t directly infect your nerve cells, widespread inflammation can damage your CNS and lead to nerve pain.7 HIV infection eventually leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a serious chronic condition. Researchers believe that up to 35 percent of people with AIDS have nerve pain.8
Other Causes of Nerve Pain
Other conditions that damage or irritate nerves and can lead to nerve pain include:4
- Tumors or masses pressing onto nerves or nearby blood vessels
- Nerve injury from trauma or surgery
- Certain cancer treatments, including radiation therapy and the chemotherapy drugs paclitaxel, cisplatin, and vincristine
- CNS conditions, including multiple sclerosis (MS) or Parkinson’s disease
- Loss of limb or amputation, which can cause phantom pain (nerve pain where the missing limb once was)
Nerve Pain Symptoms and Types
People experience nerve pain in many different ways. Even if you have the same type of neuropathy or underlying cause as someone else, it doesn’t mean you’ll have the same symptoms. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if you’ve been experiencing any of the following:4
- Spontaneous or unprompted burning, shooting, stabbing pain that feels like an electric shock; a “pins and needles” sensation that feels tingly or numb
- Pain triggered by normal or light touch (known as allodynia) — it may be from your clothes brushing against your skin, light pressure from a hug, or temperature changes
- Difficulties sleeping from uncomfortable or painful symptoms
Below are the signs and symptoms of specific types of nerve pain. The location of your nerve pain depends on what condition you have and what nerves have been affected.
The most common type of diabetic neuropathy is peripheral neuropathy, which affects the nerves in the feet and legs. You may notice pain, numbness, or tingling in your feet and toes.5
Other types of diabetic neuropathy include:
- Autonomic neuropathy: Affects the nerves in your organs that control involuntary or automatic functions like blood pressure, heart rate, bladder control, and sexual function
- Focal neuropathy: Damage to a single nerve that causes symptoms in only one area of the body, such as the leg, torso, hand, or head
- Proximal neuropathy: A rare type of neuropathy that affects the hips, thighs, or buttocks, typically on just one side of the body
People with postherpetic neuralgia have pain that lasts for at least 3 months, if not longer. Their pain is often extreme enough that light touch from clothing rubbing against their skin is unbearable. In rare cases, some people lose feeling in their skin from nerve pain and damage.6
Trigeminal neuralgia (TN) is a chronic type of neuropathy that causes sudden and severe facial pain. People with TN often report experiencing sudden, sharp, intense pain along one side of their face that lasts for a few minutes. You may also notice a throbbing, aching, or burning sensation. TN nerve pain can last for several days to weeks and comes in bursts, often multiple times per day.9
Diagnosing Nerve Pain
Your doctor will take your medical history to find out if you’ve had a nerve injury, infection, or other health condition that may be causing your nerve pain. During your physical exam, they’ll note where you’re experiencing pain and whether any touch or movements make it worse.4 Together, the results from these tests can help your doctor pinpoint what’s causing your nerve pain and help them develop a treatment plan to alleviate it.
Complications of Nerve Pain
Nerve pain may be a difficult condition to manage, leading to other complications. Your doctor will work closely with you to treat your pain, but you may also develop other issues, including:6,10,11
- Skin injuries or infections due to pain and loss of sensation, especially in those with diabetic peripheral neuropathy
- Fatigue and trouble sleeping caused by pain and discomfort
- Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety
Resources for Living with Nerve Pain
If you or a loved one has nerve pain, there are resources available to help you learn more about living with and managing this condition.