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Unexplained Nerve Pain

If you have nerve pain, you know that it can take many forms: burning, tingling, electric, and pins-and-needles. But if you have no idea what's causing the pain, you're not alone. Millions of people have unexplained nerve pain. While traditional medicine can offer some relief, there are a number of other ways to lessen the pain.

Known Causes of Nerve Pain

Nerve pain is caused by damage to the nerve. More than 50 medical conditions, drugs, and toxins are known to cause nerve damage, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection
  • Celiac disease
  • Trauma
  • Amyloidosis
  • Fabry's disease
  • Medications, including B6 (pyridoxine), isoniazid, HIV drugs, or chemotherapy
  • Toxins, such as heavy alcohol use
  • Autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and vasculitis
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Some cancers, such as lymphoma or myeloma
  • Lyme disease

Once a nerve is damaged, it is more likely to start behaving abnormally. It may become quiet and send no information, which causes numbness. Or it may send excessive and inappropriate pain messages.

Searching for Causes of Nerve Pain

For many people, the cause of nerve pain cannot be identified even after extensive testing. This is called unexplained (idiopathic) nerve pain, or idiopathic neuropathy. Unexplained nerve pain may still be due to nerve damage that occurred at some point, but current medical knowledge and testing can't say how, when, or why.

Between 15 million to 20 million Americans are believed to have unexplained nerve pain -- about one in 10 people over age 40. It's most likely to occur in people over age 60.

In some studies, almost half of the participants with unexplained nerve pain also had prediabetes. Some experts believe that the elevated blood sugars of prediabetes may be the main cause of this.

Other studies have found that metabolic syndrome -- the combination of high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, obesity, and prediabetes -- is also common in people with unexplained nerve pain. These factors may contribute to the pain.

Symptoms of Unexplained Nerve Pain

Idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, like diabetic neuropathy, usually causes numbness in the hands and feet. The numbness may go unnoticed if it causes no pain.

Nerve pain in idiopathic peripheral neuropathy is usually in the feet and legs but can also be in the hands and arms. People describe their unexplained nerve pain in different ways:

  • Burning
  • Tingling
  • Pins-and-needles
  • Crawling
  • Electrical shocks

Simple touching can cause nerve pain, and pain may be constant even when there's no stimulation. Often, unexplained nerve pain is worst at night, interfering with sleep. This can compound the problem, because people need adequate sleep in order to cope with pain.

Seeking Medical Care for Unexplained Nerve Pain

Anyone who has nerve pain should get a full physical exam by a doctor. Get checked for diabetes, high cholesterol, and blood pressure. Tell your doctor about all medicines and dietary supplements you are taking. Get evaluated for recent viral illnesses and toxins to which you may have been exposed. Also, discuss your full family medical history with the doctor.

Medical therapies are available to treat unexplained nerve pain, and it's worthwhile to discuss them with your doctor. But while medications can help, they usually can't reduce more than half of the pain.

WebMD Medical Reference

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