What makes neuropathic pain different from other pain?

Amy is usually a multi-tasking whiz, but one day her multi-tasking talents let her down.

While Amy was stirring soup on the stove with a metal spoon, she decided to rinse off one of her hands. She turned on the water faucet with one hand and kept stirring with the other – and got a strong electrical shock when her fingers touched the water. It was totally unexpected, and very painful!

Amy and her husband spent the next hour trying to find out what was wrong with the faucet…or maybe it was the stove instead? It wasn’t until Amy went into the garage the next day that she found the reason for her shock: A water pipe was leaking onto the electrical circuit breakers for the house.

Who would have thought that a problem in the kitchen was actually caused by trouble in a different part of the house?

Neuropathic pain is like that

If you get a paper cut, it’s pretty clear where you’ve been wounded: You feel pain in the finger that was cut. After a few days, the finger heals and the pain is gone. But neuropathic pain is like Amy’s shocking stove situation instead: The problem is caused by something that you can’t see, and may be far away from where you’d expect.

Let’s take a closer look.

The two main types of pain

Your nerves are like electric wires; they help messages go back and forth from your body to your brain. Pain messages are a big part of the “talk” that travels through your nervous system. Normal pain that’s caused by an injury and is felt by your nerves is called nociceptive (no- see- sep- tiv) pain. Once the injury gets better, this pain goes away.

But with neuropathic (nerve) pain, the injury isn’t always something that can be seen with your eyes. The nerve itself is injured or malfunctioning, and starts sending wrong pain messages to your brain. What happens next? Sometimes, you’re in pain for no identifiable reason, and this pain may last for months or years.

Examples of neuropathic pain that may happen when nerves are damaged or malfunctioning are:

  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Alcoholism
  • Shingles
  • An amputated limb (phantom limb pain)
  • Cancer treatments
  • Unknown reasons

As unfair as it seems, it’s also possible for people to have both nociceptive pain and neuropathic pain at the same time.

Just the facts

Around 15 million people in the U.S. and Europe suffer from neuropathic pain. Experts know that:

  • Neuropathic pain may sometimes be hard to diagnose
  • It can be caused by many different illnesses
  • It can sometimes be hard to treat by using common pain-relieving medicines
  • It can cause many different types of painful feelings, such as tingling, burning, and “pins and needles” sensations
  • It has the ability to turn your life upside down: It may be difficult to sleep, work, or even carry out simple household tasks

What can help?

Speak with a doctor about your neuropathic pain and some ways to treat it. You don’t have to suffer in silence. You might be sent to a pain clinic to learn about new medications that are just for nerve pain. Other good options include finding new ways to relax, and trying not to set goals that are unreasonable.


Give it a try: Work together with your healthcare provider to find some effective ways to lower your pain.



American Chronic Pain Association

The Neuropathy Association

Neuropathic Pain Network

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
http://www.ninds.nih.gov (Search on “neuropathic pain”)