What is neuropathic pain?

Neuropathic pain can happen if your nervous system is damaged or not working correctly. You can feel pain from any of the various levels of the nervous system—the peripheral nerves, the spinal cord and the brain. Together, the spinal cord and the brain are known as the central nervous system. Peripheral nerves are the ones that are spread throughout the rest of your body to places likes organs, arms, legs, fingers and toes.

Damaged nerve fibers send the wrong signals to pain centers. Nerve function may change at the site of the nerve damage, as well as areas in the central nervous system (central sensitization).

Neuropathy is a disturbance of function or a change in one or several nerves. Diabetes is responsible for about 30% of neuropathy cases. It is not always easy to tell the source of the neuropathic pain. There are hundreds of diseases that are linked to this kind of pain.

What are some of the sources of neuropathic pain?

Neuropathic pain can be caused by diseases, including:

  • Alcoholism.
  • Diabetes.
  • Facial nerve problems.
  • HIV infection or AIDS.
  • Central nervous system disorders (stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, etc.)
  • Complex regional pain syndrome.
  • Shingles. (Pain that continues after your bout with shingles ends is called postherpetic neuralgia.)

Other causes include:

  • Chemotherapy drugs (cisplatin, paclitaxel, vincristine, etc.).
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Amputation, which can cause phantom pain.
  • Spinal nerve compression or inflammation.
  • Trauma or surgeries with resulting nerve damage.
  • Nerve compression or infiltration by tumors.

What are the symptoms of neuropathic pain?

Many symptoms may be present in the case of neuropathic pain. These symptoms include:

  • Spontaneous pain (pain that comes without stimulation): Shooting, burning, stabbing, or electric shock-like pain; tingling, numbness, or a “pins and needles” feeling
  • Evoked pain: Pain brought on by normally non-painful stimuli such as cold, gentle brushing against the skin, pressure, etc. This is called allodynia. Evoked pain also may mean the increase of pain by normally painful stimuli such as pinpricks and heat. This type of pain is called hyperalgesia.
  • An unpleasant, abnormal sensation whether spontaneous or evoked (dysesthesia).
  • Trouble sleeping, and emotional problems due to disturbed sleep and pain.
  • Pain that may be lessened in response to a normally painful stimulus (hypoalgesia).

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/07/2020.

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