Neuropathy vs Neuralgia 101: Symptoms and Treatments
By Clayton Adams, M.D.
Neuropathy is a dysfunction usually occurring in the peripheral nervous system or the nerves that are located outside the brain and spinal cord. It can manifest itself as pain, weakness, and numbness. Whereas neuralgia is just nerve pain where the patient may feel a burning, tingling, pins and needles, and electric shock sensation that can occur with the lightest form of stimuli. Neuralgia is a type of neuropathy, but neuropathy tends to affect the motor components, such as causing slow digestion, nausea, or light-headedness.
Both denote conditions that affect the nerves and may cause pain wherever the nerve has been damaged. Both conditions can turn chronic and get progressively worse if not treated relatively early. The patient could experience such permanent damage that they lose feeling or feel pain in the affected area permanently. It is important for patients, as soon as they think they may be experiencing symptoms of neuropathy or neuralgia, to see their doctor, so that they can come up with an effective treatment plan to potentially extract the damaged nerve or lessen the pain.
What are the symptoms of neuropathy?
Neuropathy can be quite common in older patients, especially if they suffer from chronic diseases like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes. In fact, 60%-70% of diabetic patients will be diagnosed with neuropathy. It can also affect any age of patients who suffer from alcohol or other substance abuse.
It can be caused by some autoimmune diseases, such as Lupus, and in some infections, such as syphilis, if untreated, Hepatitis B and C. If the patient has undergone some injury or surgery, neuropathy can be unavoidable; such as in surgeries involving anything around the spine and neck. It is also important to note, a patient could be more susceptible to neuropathy if they have a vitamin deficiency, or undergo chemotherapy.
Neuropathy can cause a patient to feel like something is burning, painful, sharp, or throbbing. It can also cause the affected part of the patient’s body to go numb or experience muscle weakness around the nerve. If a patient is experiencing neuropathy in their autonomic nerves, nerves that control things we have less conscious control over, like breathing, heart rate, and digestion; a patient could experience dizziness or unusual sweating.
What are the symptoms of neuralgia?
Neuralgia is most commonly caused by damage to a nerve under the skin. Neuralgia has similar origins, such as diseases like diabetes, surgery, and infections such as HIV/AIDs. It can also occur as a result of Shingles, and cause mild to severe pain where the Shingles were in the body. It can result from side effects to certain medications that support: heart and blood pressure, fight cancers, HIV/AIDS, and fight diseases like tuberculosis and leprosy.
Neuralgia can manifest itself as an aching, stabbing, burning, or electric shock sensation in the affected area. For example, if a patient has Trigeminal Neuralgia, they may experience this pain in their head, mouth, teeth, and nose area.
What are the medical neuralgia and neuropathy treatments?
Neuropathy and neuralgia medical treatments depend a lot on the underlying disease that may have caused the condition and also the symptoms. The doctor will usually create a treatment plan that can support managing the underlying disease and tackle the symptoms.
There are both over-the-counter and prescribed medications that can be taken to tackle the pain. For example, anti-inflammatories may help reduce nerve pain. Doctors may also prescribe anticonvulsants or even antidepressants as effective prescribed treatments.
Doctors may also suggest procedural interventions such as a nerve block injection that blocks pain from certain nerves or nerve groups. Radiofrequency ablation can be useful as it heats the affected area and can burn off the affected nerve. Doctors may also prescribe physical therapy or even surgery to support the patient and their pain. A doctor may decide to order a spinal cord stimulation for the patient, which is good for patients who experience a burning or electric shock sensation; yet their brains are trying to make sense of the signal, given the patient didn’t actually experience those symptoms from typical stimuli.
What are at-home neuropathy and neuralgia treatments?
Generally, if neuropathy or neuralgia came about from an underlying disease, a patient would benefit from managing their underlying disease. For example, if someone experienced neuropathy as a side effect of their diabetes, it is best to stay on top of sugar levels, get enough exercise, eat a low-sugar diet, etc. If the patient’s doctor has pointed out that they have a vitamin deficiency, then they should increase their intake at home.
Exercising can also help because, as a result of neuropathy and neuralgia, the nerve is usually inflamed. The more blood flow that can go to the affected area, the more the nerve does not get caught in developed scar tissue, making the pain worst. There are also specific movements called neural flossing that can improve the motor function of the nerve and reduce pain.
Most importantly, patients should see their doctors even if their neuropathy or neuralgia is minimal or only present from time to time. Usually, these conditions start occasionally and present more rapidly and consistently over time; especially if they were brought on by a trauma or an infection. Waiting will only cause further problems down the line.
Dr. Adams is a Texas Tech University graduate, where he also earned his medical degree. Dr. Adams was chief resident during his Anesthesiology Residency and finished his Pain Management Fellowship at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. He is double board certified in Anesthesiology and Pain Management. View Profile