Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on January 26, 2021
How Nerve Pain Feels
People with nerve pain feel it in different ways. For some, it's a stabbing pain in the middle of the night. For others, symptoms can include a chronic prickling, tingling, or burning they feel all day.
Uncontrolled nerve pain can be hard to bear. But with treatment, it can often be adequately controlled.
Understanding Nerve Pain
Pain is supposed to be a warning. When your hand gets too close to a stove, the nerves send a pain signal to the brain -- and you pull back before you burn yourself. But if you have nerve damage, that system isn't working. Damaged nerves may send false signals -- and you feel real pain, often without a cause. Damaged nerves may also result in you not feeling pain when you have an injury.
Nerve Pain Triggers
Some find that certain body positions or activities -- like standing in line or walking -- become painful. Nerve damage may also make your body overly sensitive. Some people may experience pain from bed sheets draped lightly over the body.
Loss of Feeling
Nerve damage may cause loss of sensation or numbness in the fingertips, making it harder to do things with your hands. Knitting, typing, and tying your shoes may become difficult. Many people with nerve damage say that their sense of touch feels dulled, as if they are always wearing gloves.
Nerve Pain and Sleep
Nerve pain is often worse at night. The touch of sheets or the pressure of lying down may be terribly uncomfortable. If you can't sleep because of your nerve pain, make sure to mention it to your doctor. Modifying lifestyle habits or taking medicine could help.
In addition to dulling your sense of touch, nerve damage can result in muscle weakness or affect your sense of balance. Either of these could lead to falls. Assistive devices -- like braces, canes or walkers -- may help. Physical and occupational therapy may also help.
Nerve damage doesn't just cause pain. It may also cause numbness that may prevent you from feeling pain when it matters. People with nerve damage sometimes injure themselves without realizing it. Your doctor may recommend that you check yourself for injuries regularly -- especially your feet.
Nerve Pain Progression
Left untreated, nerve damage may worsen over time. It can sometimes start in the nerves farthest from the brain and spinal cord -- like those in the feet and hands. Then it may move up into the legs and arms.
However, if you get treatment for the medical condition causing the nerve damage, you may be able to stop the damage -- and even reverse it.
Assessing Your Pain
In many cases, nerve pain may be controlled. Start by getting an assessment at the doctor's office. Be ready to answer questions. How long have you had pain? What does it feel like? How does it affect you? The answers will help your doctor figure out what's causing your pain and how to treat it.
Conditions That Cause Nerve Pain
Many conditions -- such as diabetes, shingles, and cancer -- may cause injury and nerve pain. Some people develop nerve pain for no known reason.
It is important to try to find the underlying cause of your nerve pain, such as uncontrolled diabetes, and seek appropriate treatment for it. It may help ease your pain and stop the progression of damage. But be sure you seek treatment for your pain too.
OTC Treatments for Nerve Pain
Over-the-counter painkillers may be the first treatment your doctor recommends. These may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) -- such as ibuprofen -- or other analgesics, such as acetaminophen or prescription medicines. Other options include painkilling creams, ointments, oils, gels, or sprays that are used on the skin.
Prescription Drugs for Nerve Pain
There are many prescription medicines that may help with nerve pain. Some are powerful painkillers. Other drug types might help too. Medicines originally used for depression and epilepsy are often prescribed to relieve nerve pain.
Natural Treatments for Nerve Pain
Complementary or alternative treatments may help. For instance, studies have found that acupuncture may ease nerve pain. In some cases, nerve pain is caused or aggravated by a deficiency of vitamin B-12. Taking supplements -- under your doctor's care -- could help.
Taking Control of Your Health
In addition to working with your doctor to find treatment that works, you can take other steps to fight chronic pain. Getting regular exercise, keeping a healthy weight, and improving your diet may help.
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American Academy of Family Physicians: "Diabetic Neuropathy."
National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke: "Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet."
National Pain Foundation: "Using Complementary Therapy."
Medscape Reference: "Nutritional Neuropathy."
PDR Health: "Peripheral Neuropathy Treatment."