Treating Nerve Pain Caused by Cancer, HIV, and Other Conditions
Nerve Pain Symptoms
Symptoms of nerve damage can vary from person to person. Sometimes, the nerves become hypersensitive. Something that normally feels painless -- a breeze on your arm, the sensation of a bed sheet on your body -- becomes painful.
Damage to the sensory nerves doesn't only cause pain. It can also result in:
- Loss of reflexes
In extreme cases, nerve damage can cause paralysis and affect things like digestion and breathing.
The severity of nerve pain is usually linked to the severity of the underlying disease. So in general, nerve pain tends to be worse as people get older.
Diagnosing Nerve Pain
If you think you might have nerve pain, you need to see your doctor now. Sometimes, the cause might be fairly clear, especially if you have already been diagnosed with a condition known to cause nerve pain, like HIV, cancer, or diabetes.
But in other cases, the cause of nerve pain can be hard to sort out. Because so many conditions can trigger nerve pain, your doctor might need to run a number of lab tests. You'll also need a thorough neurological exam, and possibly other tests -- like CT scans and MRIs. Sometimes, a doctor will recommend a biopsy of the skin or a nerve to examine the nerve endings.
Treating Nerve Pain
When nerve pain is caused by a condition like diabetes, HIV or cancer, getting treatment for the underlying disease is obviously the priority.
But treatments for the underlying disease might not necessarily help with your pain. Nerve pain may need its own treatment, separate from treatment for the disease that's causing it.
The most effective treatment for nerve pain varies, because it depends on the specifics -- like the patient's health, the underlying cause, the risks of potential side effects, and the costs. However, doctors generally use the same set of treatments for nerve pain, whether it is caused by cancer, HIV, diabetes, or another condition. Here’s a rundown of the basic options.
- Topical treatments. Some over-the-counter and prescription topical treatments -- like creams, lotions, gels, and patches -- can ease nerve pain. They tend to work best for pain that's isolated in specific areas on your skin.
- Anticonvulsants. These drugs were originally developed to treat epilepsy, but some also help control nerve pain. To boost their effects, they are often used in combination with antidepressants. They might not work as well with all types of nerve pain.
- Antidepressants. Certain types of antidepressants can help with nerve pain. Studies have shown that using them along with anticonvulsants may have bigger benefits than using them alone. However, some studies have indicated that tricyclic antidepressants might not help with nerve pain caused by HIV or cancer chemotherapy.
- Painkillers. Powerful opioid painkillers might be a first choice for people with especially severe pain or nerve pain caused by cancer. However, for other kinds of nerve pain, doctors generally try anti-inflammatories or pain relievers, or antidepressants and/or anticonvulsants first. Opioids can have serious side effects. Over-the-counter painkillers may not work very well for moderate to severe nerve pain.
- Electrical stimulation. A number of treatments use electrical impulses to block the pain messages sent by damaged nerves. These include TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS.) Both are noninvasive and painless. Some other electrical stimulation approaches are more complex and require surgery.
- Other techniques. In certain cases, doctors might recommend injections of anesthetic or, rarely, surgery to tackle nerve pain.
- Complementary treatments. Many people find that alternative approaches -- like acupuncture, meditation, and massage -- can help relieve nerve pain. If you're interested in dietary supplements for nerve pain, talk to your doctor first.
- Lifestyle changes. While they won't cure nerve pain, making some changes to your habits could help you feel better and ease some of your discomfort. Exercising more, eating a healthy diet, quitting smoking, and making time to practice relaxation techniques could all help.