Your nervous system is involved in everything your body does, from regulating your breathing to controlling your muscles and sensing heat and cold.
There are three types of nerves in the body:
- Autonomic nerves. These nerves control the involuntary or partially voluntary activities of your body, including heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and temperature regulation.
- Motor nerves. These nerves control your movements and actions by passing information from your brain and spinal cord to your muscles.
- Sensory nerves. These nerves relay information from your skin and muscles back to your spinal cord and brain. The information is then processed to let you feel pain and other sensations.
Because nerves are essential to all you do, nerve pain and damage can seriously affect your quality of life.
What Are the Symptoms of Nerve Pain and Nerve Damage?
With nerve damage there can be a wide array of symptoms. Which ones you may have depends on the location and type of nerves that are affected. Damage can occur to nerves in your brain and spinal cord. It can also occur in the peripheral nerves, which are located throughout the rest of your body.
Autonomic nerve damage may produce the following symptoms:
- Inability to sense chest pain, such as angina or heart attack
- Too much sweating (known as hyperhidrosis) or too little sweating (known as anhidrosis)
- Dry eyes and mouth
- Bladder dysfunction
- Sexual dysfunction
Damage to motor nerves may produce the following symptoms:
- Muscle atrophy
- Twitching, also known as fasciculation
Sensory nerve damage may produce the following symptoms:
- Tingling or prickling
- Problems with positional awareness
In some instances, people with nerve damage will have symptoms that indicate damage to two, or even three, different types of nerves. For instance, you might experience weakness and burning of your legs at the same time.
What Causes Nerve Pain and Nerve Damage?
There are more than 100 different types of nerve damage. The various types may have different symptoms and may require different types of treatment.
It is estimated that about 20 million Americans suffer from peripheral nerve damage. This type of damage becomes increasingly common with age. Up to 70% of people with diabetes have some nerve damage.
While not an exhaustive list, the following are some of the possible causes of nerve pain and nerve damage:
- Autoimmune diseases. A variety of different types of autoimmune diseases can produce symptoms of nerve pain and nerve damage. These include: multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barré syndrome (a rare condition in which the immune system attacks the peripheral nerves), lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease.
- Cancer. Cancer can cause nerve pain and nerve damage in multiple ways. In some instances, cancerous masses may push against or crush nerves. In other cases, certain types of cancer may result in nutritional deficiencies that affect nerve function. Additionally, some types of chemotherapy and radiation may produce nerve pain and nerve damage in certain individuals.
- Compression/trauma. Anything that results in trauma or compression of nerves can result in nerve pain and nerve damage. This includes pinched nerves in the neck, crush injuries, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Learn more about pinched (compressed) nerves.
- Diabetes. Up to 70% of people with diabetes suffer from nerve damage, which becomes more likely as the disease progresses. Diabetic neuropathy is a serious complication and may affect all three types of neurons. Sensory nerves are most often affected, causing burning or numbness. If you have diabetes and are experiencing symptoms of nerve pain or nerve damage, you should consult a medical professional as soon as possible. Take this assessment to see if you're at risk for diabetic nerve pain.
- Drug side effects and toxic substances. Various substances that are taken into the body intentionally or unintentionally have the ability to cause nerve pain and nerve damage. These include medications, such as some chemotherapies for cancer and certain drugs used to treat HIV. Chronic alcohol use is a common cause of nerve pain and nerve damage. Toxic substances that may be ingested accidentally, including lead, arsenic, and mercury, may also cause damage to your nerves. Learn about other side effects of certain medications.
- Motor neuron diseases. The motor neurons are nerves in your brain and spinal column that communicate with the muscles throughout your body. Diseases that affect these nerves, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, can result in progressively worsening nerve damage. Read more on the different types of motor neuron diseases.
- Nutritional deficiencies. Deficiencies of certain nutrients, including vitamins B6 and B12, may produce symptoms of nerve pain and nerve damage, including weakness or burning sensations. Nutritional deficiencies that cause nerve damage may also result from excessive alcohol ingestion or develop after gastric surgery. See a list of food sources of vitamins and minerals.
- Infectious disease. Certain infectious diseases have the ability to affect the nerves in your body. These conditions include Lyme disease, the herpes viruses, HIV, and hepatitis C. View a slideshow on the most common infectious diseases in the U.S.
How Are Nerve Pain and Nerve Damage Treated?
In many instances, nerve damage cannot be cured entirely. But there are various treatments that can reduce your symptoms. Because nerve damage is often progressive, it is important to consult with a doctor when you first notice symptoms. That way you can reduce the likelihood of permanent damage.
Often, the first goal of treatment is to address the underlying condition that's causing your nerve pain or nerve damage. This may mean:
- Regulating blood sugar levels for people with diabetes
- Correcting nutritional deficiencies
- Changing medications when drugs are causing nerve damage
- Physical therapy or surgery to address compression or trauma to nerves
- Medications to treat autoimmune conditions
Additionally, your doctor may prescribe medications aimed at minimizing the nerve pain you are feeling. These may include:
- Pain relievers
- Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline and desipramine (Norpramin), as well as other antidepressants, including duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor XR)
- Certain anti-seizure drugs, including neurontin (Gabapentin) pregabalin (Lyrica)
- Capsaicin cream
Complementary and alternative approaches may also help alleviate your nerve pain and discomfort. These include:
- Antioxidant vitamins
- Electrical nerve stimulation such as TENS