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Treating Nerve Pain Caused by Cancer, HIV, and Other Conditions

Nerve pain can be a symptom of many different conditions, including cancer, HIV, diabetes, and shingles. For some, nerve pain is frustrating; for others, nerve pain is devastating and life-changing. 

Whether it feels like burning, pinpricks, or sudden shocks of electricity, nerve pain can disrupt your life at home and at work. It can limit your ability to get around. Over time, it can grind you down. Studies show that people with nerve pain have higher rates of sleep problems, anxiety, and depression.

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When you have a serious medical condition such as cancer or HIV, dealing with the additional misery of nerve pain can be especially hard. But there is good news. While nerve pain can't always be cured, it can be treated -- and there are a lot of good options available.

If you're struggling with nerve pain caused by diabetes, cancer, HIV or another condition, here are some answers.

What Causes Nerve Pain?

Countless nerves in the body convey sensations to the brain, including pain. While we might not like pain much, it does have an important function: it prevents injury. When your foot begins to step on a nail, it's the pain sensation that alerts your brain to the danger.

That's how it's supposed to work, at least. But in people with nerve pain, that messaging system isn't working correctly. Your brain receives a pain signal, and you feel the pain, but there's no actual cause. Now, it's just pain without a purpose -- and because there's no cause, there's no immediate way to relieve it.

What makes the nerves behave this way? Usually, it's damage from a physical injury or disease.

  • Cancer and other tumors can cause nerve pain. As they grow, tumors can press on the surrounding nerves. Cancers can also grow out of the nerves themselves. Sometimes, treatments for cancer -- such as chemotherapy drugs -- can damage the nerves, leading to pain.
  • HIV can cause painful nerve damage. Nerve pain affects up to one-third of people with HIV, and nerve pain in the hands and feet is often the first symptom that appears. Treatment with antiretroviral drugs can also lead to nerve damage that causes pain.
  • Diabetes is a common cause of nerve damage in the U.S. Over time, high levels of glucose in the blood (blood sugar) can injure the nerves.
  • Shingles can be followed by a painful condition called postherpetic neuralgia. This type of nerve pain can be particularly severe and sudden.
  • Physical injuries can result in nerves that are compressed, crushed, or severed.

These are only a few examples of diseases and conditions that can cause nerve damage and nerve pain. Others include repetitive stress, vitamin deficiencies, hormone imbalances, heart disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, Lyme disease, alcoholism, and more. In some cases, nerve pain develops for no apparent reason.

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