Electric. Shooting. Numbness. Tingling. Sharp.
These are words that many patients have used to describe nerve pain. These may be words that relate to you and the pain you may currently be experiencing, but do not worry, you are not alone!
There are many different causes of nerve pain, some of which have been covered in pervious blogs for reference about low back pain and neck pain. Generally, in both low back and neck pain, the root of the pain is often caused by pinching of specific spinal nerves which cause the sensations of pain.
One unique type of nerve pain includes diffuse nerve pain and damage – often called Polyneuropathy.
Here’s what to know:
How Common is Diffuse Nerve Pain and where does it come from?
Polyneuropathy is estimated to affect 0.1-3.3% of the population, becoming significantly more prominent among the elderly. In the U.S., diabetes is by far the most common cause of polyneuropathy. It is estimated that 10.5% of the population has diabetes, a disease caused by uncontrolled blood sugar levels, about 50% of them will eventually get polyneuropathy. Diabetes often affects both the insulation of nerves and the nerve fibers themselves. This can ultimately present as both sensory loss, pain, and weakness.
Alcohol has also been found to be toxic to nerves and is also a major cause of polyneuropathy. So if you are someone experiencing these pains, you may want to limit the amount of alcohol you take in. Polyneuropathy is reported to be present in 13-66% of chronic alcoholics. This often results in painful nerve sensations, but like diabetes, can result in loss of sensation and weakness.
Other causes of neuropathy include problems with the immune system, typically called inflammatory neuropathies. They cause 2-16% of all polyneuropathies. Additionally certain vitamin deficiencies, like B1 and B12, can result in polyneuropathy.
Although there is a lot we’ve learned about nerve damage and associated pain over the last few decades, about 20-30% of polyneuropathies have no identifiable causes.
What Lifestyle Changes could Help Prevent Neuropathy?
Since diabetes is a very common leading cause of nerve pain prevention of the disease is of the utmost importance in protecting from nerve damage. Mayo Clinic, one of the leading medical systems, published a diabetes prevention to-do list. Generally this entails regular exercise, weight loss, and healthy eating which can be worked into your daily lifestyle.
As noted in the last section, excessive long term drinking can lead to nerve damage and neuropathy. Thus drinking alcohol responsibly is also important in preventing Polyneuropathy and nerve pain. A proper diet, and possibly supplements, are also important in helping prevent vitamin deficiency, particularly B vitamins to prevent the nerve pain condition.
How do you Treat Diffuse Nerve Damage?
If you are experiencing any symptoms similar to nerve pain, it’s strongly encouraged that you seek out medical attention and follow your doctor’s advice on how to move forward.
Like with other medical illnesses it is most important to find & treat the cause of the neuropathy. Thus for many people, treating and controlling their diabetes is at the forefront of treatment. Diabetes treatment generally consists of oral medications and, if necessary, insulin injections. It has been shown that tight control of blood sugar levels in diabetics is the only way to slow down, prevent, and at times even reverse nerve pain and nerve damage.
Since alcoholic polyneuropathy is typically seen among heavy drinkers, these patients would need to be weaned off alcohol, to prevent withdrawal symptoms. In some cases this can be facilitated while under the supervision of a physician. In general, abstinence or stopping alcohol intake is key to controlling the symptoms.
As noted above – vitamin supplements, particularly B vitamins, can also be helpful in treating certain kinds of nerve pain. Other supplements also include those that reduce oxidative stress and help reduce tissue damage. As noted by the Mayo clinic, alpha-lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine can help in some instances, but should be taken only after talking to your primary care doctor.
There are also an assortment of nerve pain medications that can help control these symptoms. They can vary in effectiveness, but generally offer patients a better quality of life when taken properly. Harvard published a short review on the different types of medications used for nerve pain. Despite their objective benefit, these medications can sometimes be associated with some unpleasant side effects such as dry mouth, nausea/dizziness, and drowsiness — to name a few.
How do you stop it from getting Worse?
We have spoken about causes, prevention, and treatments for nerve pain. Despite our best efforts it is not uncommon for nerve pain to persist. Neuro-imaging research shows similar parts of the brain modify pain and emotional experiences. Other studies have shown a strong connection between catastrophizing (jumping to the worst possible conclusion) and worsening pain symptoms.
There are different treatments that can help prevent or stop catastrophizing. These range from self-help guides to peer reviewed therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). If you are interested to learn more about this and other therapies I encourage you to join a group session or chat with a therapist today. For more information or treatment options, request an appointment with our office today.