Nerve Pain and Nerve Damage

Medically Reviewed by Shruthi N, MD on June 25, 2024
8 min read

Your nervous system is involved in everything your body does, from managing your breathing to controlling your muscles and sensing heat and cold. Nerves carry sensations of pain or pleasure from your body to your brain. 

Because nerves are essential to all you do, nerve pain and damage can seriously affect your quality of life.

The central nervous system is made up of nerves in your spinal cord and brain. Peripheral nerves travel beyond your spinal cord and brain to the rest of your body. 

There are three types of nerves in the body:

  1. Autonomic nerves. These nerves control the involuntary or partially voluntary activities of your body, including heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and temperature regulation.
  2. Motor nerves. These nerves control your movements and actions by passing information from your brain and spinal cord to your muscles.
  3. 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.

Difference between neuralgia and neuropathic pain

While the terms neuralgia and neuropathic pain, or neuropathy, are similar they mean different things. Neuropathy is damage to a nerve caused by disease or injury to the nervous system. Neuralgia is a type of nerve pain and can be a symptom of neuropathy. 

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 throughout the rest of your body.

Symptoms of autonomic nerve damage

Autonomic nerve damage may produce the following symptoms:

Symptoms of motor nerve damage

Damage to motor nerves may produce the following symptoms:

  • Weakness
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Twitching, also known as fasciculation
  • Paralysis

Symptoms of sensory nerve damage

Sensory nerve damage may produce the following symptoms:

  • Pain
  • Sensitivity
  • Numbness
  • Tingling or prickling
  • Burning
  • Problems with positional awareness (knowing what's around you and your position in a particular space)

In some instances, people with nerve damage will have symptoms that indicate damage to two, or even three, types of nerves. For instance, you might have weakness and burning in your legs at the same time.

There are more than 100 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 have peripheral nerve damage. This type of damage becomes more 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 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 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 a lack of nutrients that affects nerve function. And some types of chemotherapy and radiation may produce nerve pain and nerve damage in some people.


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, or compressed, nerves.)


Up to 70% of people with diabetes have nerve damage, which becomes more likely as the disease worsens. 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 have symptoms of nerve pain or nerve damage, you should consult a medical professional as soon as possible.

Drug side effects and toxic substances

Various substances that are taken into the body intentionally or unintentionally can 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 damage 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 nerve damage that worsens over time.

(Read more about the different types of motor neuron diseases.)

Nutritional deficiencies

A lack 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 drinking too much alcohol, or they may develop after gastric surgery.

(See a list of food sources of vitamins and minerals.)

Infectious disease

Certain infectious diseases can 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. )

Many times, nerve damage cannot be cured entirely. But various treatments can ease your symptoms. Because nerve damage often gets worse over time, 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 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

Medications for nerve damage

Your doctor may prescribe medications aimed to lessen the nerve pain you are feeling. These may include:

Physical therapy

Physical therapy improves the symptoms of nerve damage, such as soreness, stiffness, and pain. This treatment may include massage, stretches, and exercises. 

Benefits of physical therapy for nerve pain include:

  • Movement of muscles to prevent them from wasting away
  • Keeping joints mobile and moving freely
  • Improved movement and daily functioning 


Your doctor may decide surgery is the best option to treat your nerve pain, especially if your pain is caused by an injury. Types of surgeries to improve or resolve nerve pain include release, repair, or removal. The type of surgery depends on the cause of the nerve pain. 

Other treatments

Often, your doctor will prescribe a combination of treatments. Along with medication or physical therapy, your doctor may recommend the following:

  • Nerve block. This treatment involves using a needle to inject a numbing medication, or anesthetic, around the injured nerves to regulate how pain signals are sent to the brain. Or your doctor may perform a nerve block by freezing, burning, or destroying the nerve to completely stop pain signals from traveling to your brain. Your doctor may use these methods if you have chronic, severe pain that does not respond to medication. 
  • Desensitization. Also called sensory reeducation, desensitization is a method to reduce pain and hypersensitivity of injured nerves. It involves slowly increasing sensory exposure to an area of skin that is extra sensitive. For example, you may follow a schedule of lightly touching a hypersensitive area of skin with a cotton ball several times a day for several days. Over time, you will use materials with a rougher texture that cause a more uncomfortable sensation, like Velcro or sandpaper. This exposure helps your damaged nerves become less sensitive, decreasing the pain messages your nerves send to your brain. 

Alternative treatments for nerve damage

Complementary and alternative approaches may also help ease your nerve pain and discomfort. These include:

  • Lifestyle adjustments to promote weight loss, like regular exercise and eating healthy foods
  • Acupuncture
  • Biofeedback
  • Hypnosis
  • Meditation
  • Dietary supplements and vitamins, including B vitamins, vitamin D, alpha-lipoic acid, and acetyl-L-carnitine
  • Electrical nerve stimulation such as TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)

Nerves are essential to all of your body’s functions, from movement and breathing to feeling sensations like pleasure and pain. Many conditions or injuries can lead to nerve pain and nerve damage. Your doctor will help to find the cause and recommend the best treatments to improve your pain and prevent lasting damage. 

How does muscle pain differ from nerve pain?

Muscle pain is caused by tension, stress, overuse, and minor injuries. Your muscles may feel tight or sore, and the pain may be dull or crampy. Nerve pain, on the other hand, is stabbing, tingling, and sharp. Nerve pain may also involve hypersensitivity to touch or cold. It can be caused by a variety of conditions or injuries. 

Are there any home remedies for nerve pain?

You may be able to manage mild nerve pain at home with nonprescription treatments such as stretching, heat, over-the-counter pain relievers, and dietary supplements. You might also use acupuncture or massage. But there is limited research to prove these methods work, so it's important to follow up with your doctor if your pain worsens and you can’t manage it on your own. 

Can I overcome nerve pain without medication?

Your doctor may recommend a variety of treatments other than medication to treat your nerve pain. These complementary therapies include surgery, physical therapy, and desensitization. Alternative treatments include dietary supplements, electrical nerve stimulation, acupuncture, hypnosis, and biofeedback. While these options may not get rid of your nerve pain completely, they may help to improve and manage your pain.

What health conditions trigger nerve pain?  

Nerve pain can be triggered by a variety of conditions and injuries, including autoimmune disease, cancer, compression/trauma, diabetes, drug side effects, toxic substances, motor neuron disease, nutritional deficiencies, and infectious disease. 

How can nerve damage be prevented in everyday life?

Prevent your overall risk of having nerve pain by living a healthy lifestyle, such as not smoking, exercising regularly, eating healthy foods, and limiting your alcohol use. See your doctor regularly for checkups and share any concerns you may have about early signs of nerve pain.