Physical pain can be caused by many things, and it can be detrimental to your overall health and quality of life. Many people across the country struggle with chronic pain. Roughly 50 million adults in the United States (20.4%) experienced chronic pain in 2016. Pain can be caused by several physical and environmental factors, including nerve damage, inflammation, or injury. If you are one of the millions of people struggling with physical pain, you are not alone. Fortunately, interventions and treatment options are available.
What is Pain?
Although uncomfortable, pain is an essential part of our existence. Pain can be thought of as an internal alert system that notifies us if something isn’t right and helps us take action to resolve whatever issue our bodies may be experiencing. The experience of pain is unique to each individual, and pain levels can range in intensity from mild to moderate to severe. Pain can also be acute or chronic, and these two types of pain are distinct from one another.
Types of Pain
Chronic pain is pain that persists over an extended period; chronic pain levels can also be negatively impacted by mental and environmental influences. Due to the duration and intensity of chronic pain, it can be difficult to manage, and many people with chronic pain have a hard time functioning in many areas of their lives. Their physical abilities, mental health, and emotional wellness can be negatively impacted as a result of chronic pain.
Acute pain can be thought of as specific pain that results from a specific injury, disease, or other health problem that is restricted to a precise period and is resolved with medical intervention. Acute pain is usually a result of tissue damage, and it can lead to emotional distress, anxiety, and other mental health symptoms. It is important to note that acute pain can lead to chronic pain if it isn’t properly managed and resolved.
Pain and Your Brain
Our body has an entire system dedicated to identifying pain; these are neurons known as nociceptors. The nociceptors initiate a sequence of electric impulses that originate in the diseased, infected, or injured area and send messages through the spinal cord to the brain. The brain is comprised of many regions, and the region that acts as a transmission station is the thalamus. The thalamus disperses the impulses to other areas of the brain that influences your experience of pain.
Your brain relays specific information about the pain you are experiencing, including:
- Affective- Provides information on the severity and unpleasantness of the pain.
- Sensory- Information that helps you determine where in your body the pain is located.
- Cognitive- Information that helps you process how to avoid feeling pain.
Factors that Influence Your Experience of Pain
However, have you ever known someone who seems to have a high pain tolerance? Perhaps they ask you to pinch them as hard as you can, and they tolerate it without flinching. Perhaps you know people who have a low threshold for pain and experience intense pain over a seemingly benign issue. People with low thresholds for pain aren’t being babies or attention-seeking; they have a genetic predisposition to pain sensitivity. Similar to skin sensitivities, pain sensitivity is unique to each individual and significantly influences by biological and genetic factors.
The type of injury or illness we experience indeed influences the way we experience pain. However, genetics also play a large role in it. Genetic differences influence how we each experience pain.
Researchers believe that certain genetic factors can influence your pain experience in the following ways:
- Certain genetic variables can increase your risk of developing chronic pain.
- Genetic factors can determine how your body responds to certain therapies.
- Genes influence your sensitivity to painful stimuli.
- Genetics influence how you experience both acute and chronic pain.
- Genetic mutations can contribute to insensitivity to pain, meaning you can’t feel pain.
- Other genetic mutations can cause you to experience disabling and severe pain conditions.
Among the millions of U.S. adults who experience pain, it is estimated that an astounding 30-40% experience nerve pain which is also known as neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain references pain as a result of an injury or disease to the somatosensory, central, or peripheral nervous system. Neuropathic pain is complex; the pain is diverse and can be difficult to treat in many instances.
Nerve pain can be caused by a variety of things, including:
- Spinal cord injury.
- Surgical trauma.
- Stroke or other vascular diseases.
- Nerve compression.
- Multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases.
- Shingles, leprosy, HIV, and other infectious diseases.
- Diabetes and other metabolic syndromes.
- Alcohol and drug abuse.
- The use of certain medications, such as chemotherapy drugs.
Keep in mind that for some people, the cause of their neuropathic pain remains unknown, which can make it difficult to identify an effective treatment plan.
Symptoms of Nerve Pain
As previously mentioned, each person’s experience of pain is unique to them and is determined by genetic, physical, and environmental factors. However, there are common symptoms of nerve pain that you can look out for.
Nerve pain can be centralized on the body or more widespread, and pain symptoms are often spontaneous. Common symptoms of nerve pain include:
- Burning, electrical, or shooting sensations throughout the body.
- Tingling and/or numbness of the extremities, also known as paresthesias.
- Areas of the skin that display a high pain threshold, also known as hyperalgesia.
- Areas of the skin that are extremely sensitive to pain, also known as allodynia.
It may be surprising to learn that nerve pain doesn’t just impact you physically; there are psychological and emotional consequences as a result of nerve pain.
For example, many people with nerve pain report:
- Difficulty falling and staying asleep and other sleep disorders.
- Mood changes, including symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Feelings of discomfort and emptiness.
- Cognitive impairments such as memory problems.
Unfortunately, many people struggling with mood, emotional, and psychological challenges as a result of pain do not receive the treatment they need as they are viewed by some medical professionals as secondary to the physical pain.
Who’s At Risk for Nerve Pain?
While everyone is at risk of experiencing acute or chronic pain, certain risk factors can make you more likely to experience pain. For example, researchers theorize that women are at an increased risk for developing certain pain disorders and tend to report higher levels of pain than males.
Researchers theorize that this is a result of:
- Females are more vulnerable to developing certain pain disorders, such as musculoskeletal pain.
- Females experience more pain risk factors than men.
- It is more socially acceptable for women to experience and express pain than men.
Scientists have also found that people of certain ethnicities may be more likely to experience clinically painful conditions. For example, research suggests that Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans have lower pain tolerance than Caucasians; Unfortunately, this has led to the undertreatment of different minority groups.
Pain is also more prevalent among the elderly, and the number one complaint from elderly patients is pain. Unfortunately, studies show that pain that interferes with activities of daily living, and the more severe pain, increases as you age. Additionally, research suggests that older people have a decreased tolerance for pain and are more susceptible to chronic pain problems.
Consequences of Nerve Pain
Nerve pain (and pain in general) has many negative consequences on the individual and society as a whole. Nerve pain can significantly impact your quality of life and your ability to complete normal activities of daily living. Your ability to walk, pick up your kids, and perform standard occupational duties can be compromised because of nerve pain. Additionally, chronic pain costs society at large billions of dollars each year in medical costs and work productivity.
How is Nerve Pain Diagnosed?
Only a medical professional can diagnose you with neuropathic pain by going through a series of evaluations. These evaluations can include:
- A complete neurological examination.
- A comprehensive evaluation of your physical, behavioral, and mental health history.
- An MRI to assess for any structural abnormalities that indicate damaged nerves.
- An electromyography to (EMG) to assess for any damage in the nerves’ transmission.
- A spinal tap, also known as a lumbar puncture.
Treatment Options for Nerve Pain
The goal of pain treatment is to improve your ability to function daily at home, at work, and with your family. An interdisciplinary team of medical professionals works together to provide you with the treatment interventions you need to maximize your functioning and reduce your pain levels.
Common treatment options include:
- Chiropractic care.
- Behavioral therapies.
- Electrical stimulation.
- Physical therapy.
If medication is part of your treatment plan and you need help paying for your prescription medication, ScriptSave WellRx can help. With the ScriptSave WellRx prescription savings card, you can save up to 80% on your medication costs. If you think you may be experiencing nerve, acute, or chronic pain, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist who can work with you to create a comprehensive treatment plan.
Jacquelyn B. began writing at the age of 10 when she won a county-wide essay contest explaining why her mother is worth her weight in gold. Since that time, she has written for several newspapers and a health and wellness blog. Her education and experience is in mental health and addiction. She is a licensed counselor and currently provides therapeutic services on an outpatient basis. Her counseling and substance abuse experience includes inpatient residential, in-home, and early recovery counseling. She is a certified addiction specialist and is working on obtaining her certification in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. She also specializes in working with pregnant and post-partum women and has received advanced training on women's health.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Prevalence of chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain among adults- United States, 2016.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes. (2023).
- Dahan, A., Niesters, N., & Van Velzen, M. (2020). Neuropathic pain: Challenges and opportunities. Frontiers, 1.
- University of Michigan Medicine. (n.d.). Nerve pain.