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
Damage to the sensory nerves doesn't only cause pain. It can also result
- 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
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
But in other cases, the cause of nerve pain can be hard to sort out. Since
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 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, since 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
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; a few studies have shown that an anticonvulsant
did not help with nerve pain caused by HIV or cancer chemotherapy.
Antidepressants. Certain types of antidepressants can help with
nerve pain. Studies have shown that using them along with anticonvulsants can
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.