Understanding What Nerve or Neuropathic Pain Is

2012-11-08 | |
Last updated: 2019-11-23

For most of human history, physical pain has served an important role in preserving our well being and survival. Pain teaches every one of us the limits of our bodies. It teaches what it is in our environment that can cause injury. However, as humans have become a species more separated from the natural world, some aspects of pain have become far less valuable to our health. In most modern situations, the common outcome of pain is simply a reduction in the quality of our lives.

Pain now serves such little value to many of us. This is because much of the pain that modern humans experience is the result of illness rather than the result of more physical injuries. Once the pain develops because of such illness, there are often a lack of options to eliminate the pain. Medications may treat the illness but the pain that has developed is often only managed through pain medications. Neuropathic or nerve pain is one example of pain that often arises in this way.

What Is Nerve Or Neuropathic Pain?

Neuropathic pain is pain that originates in the nerves rather than from the site of an injury or from the location where disease has caused damage. The pain usually arises because of an injury or illness> However, long after the damage has healed, neuropathic pain will persist. The feelings of neuropathic pain can include tingling sensations, itching, throbbing, feelings like an electric shock and burning.

People who have neuropathic pain may experience episodes of pain or constant pain. In situations where the pain is not constant, pain may be triggered by even small changes in heat or cold. In some situations, pain even arises from light pressure or touch. The intensity of the feeling experienced can range from uncomfortable to severe. Comparing different types of pain, researchers have found that those who experience neuropathic are more likely to have long lasting pain.

How Many People are Affected by Nerve Pain?

Nerve or neuropathic pain is very common. According to research conducted independently by the University of Aberdeen and the Versailles-Saint-Quentin University, roughly 7 to 8% of the population suffers from this specific type of pain. The studies revealed that older middle age adults and women were the most likely to experience this type of pain. In cases of such pain, 1 in 20 people experienced pain that was most severe.

What is worse is that the number of people experiencing neuropathic pain is expected to increase with the large numbers of Baby Boomers. In particular, the epidemic of overweight and obese adults is increasing the numbers of people who develop diabetes. Research from the University of Rochester indicates that almost half of Diabetics will develop neuropathic pain.

At the same time, shingles or herpes zoster is also a common condition that can appear years after having chicken pox. It develops when the virus that causes chicken pox goes dormant for some years before becoming active once again. The rash that accompanies shingles can also lead to nerve pain.

How Does Neuropathic Pain Develop?

While the causes of neuropathic or nerve pain are still not well understood, medical research is making progress in understanding what causes the condition to develop.

Hyper Nerve Cells Misinterpret Nerve Communication

In research from Tel Aviv University, scientists observed that the nerves involved in neuropathic pain are extremely excitable. They noticed that these cells would over communicate nerve sensations by sending too much of the chemicals used to communicate. When the researchers took steps to control the flow of these communication chemicals between nerve cells, they observed that levels of pain decreased.

Nerves Remember Pain Signals

In trying to understand how nerve cells become excitable, scientists from Yale University looked at the differences between normal nerve cells and excitable nerve cells. What they observed is that excitable nerves were storing memory of the pain signals that they had communicated. As a result, the nerve cells could recreate and send pain messages to other nerves without actually having a pain signal coming in.

When the scientists treated the nerve cells with chemicals that prevent nerve memory creation, they observed that the test animals developed lower levels of neuropathic pain.

Immune System Triggers Nerve Activity

In other research, scientists from China Medical University were looking at the benefits of exercise in treating neuropathic pain. As an effect of the exercise, they noticed that levels of inflammation in the body were reduced. The researchers then looked at the amount of inflammatory chemicals in the nerves of the upper leg and noticed that it was also reduced. Their research and previous research suggests that inflammation is part of what of leads to neuropathic pain.

Nerve Pain Triggers The Immune System

Most recently, in research published in 2012, the picture is becoming even more clear.

Researchers from Scripps Research Center caused injury to some leg nerves in rats. They then looked for nerve activity that indicated the development of neuropathic pain. Instead of observing the nerve activity where the nerve had received damaged, the researchers instead found that nerve signaling is strongest in the spinal chord. In particular, the activity occurred where the nerves from the leg connected to the spinal chord.

The researchers believe that as the pain signals originate at the injured location to the brain, the nerve communication causes nerve rewiring in the spinal chord. This rewiring involves breaking down existing nerves and building news ones. However, the act of building nerves creates chemical byproducts that trigger the immune system to respond. The immune system response, in term, stimulates the nerves to communicate pain signals.

The result is a process that feeds itself and continues to drive ongoing pain.


Pain has served an important role in preserving the human race over the millennia, but the body does not always generate pain for valid reasons. Among the forms of pain, neuropathic or nerve pain is among the most debilitating and unyielding. It is also a type of pain resulting from one or more flaws in how the body functions. However, in recent years, research efforts to understand pain are building a better picture of how neuropathic pain works. While the picture is not yet completely clear, this greater understanding increasingly points toward the elimination of neuropathic pain.

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Category: Disease Information, General Health, Medical Research, Symptom Information

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