How Chronic Nerve Pain Causes Skin Changes

And What You Can Do about It

A graphic illustrating lower back pain.
A graphic illustrating lower back pain. SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI/Getty Images

If you're suffering from chronic nerve pain, you might have noticed some changes in your skin lately. It may give you some peace of mind to know that this is a common side effect. Here's what you should know about how chronic nerve pain conditions can change your skin.

Why Nerve Pain Changes Skin

Changes in the skin's appearance are especially common in people with peripheral nerve injury or damage to the nerves that are outside the spinal cord and brain.

That's because these same nerves supply the organs, muscles, and skin. If the nerves are damaged, they may no longer supply the skin adequately, which can cause it to change color or texture. It also can alter the way certain sensations, such as light, touch, and temperature, are felt.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

Also called reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a chronic pain condition that causes swelling, redness and pain, often in the hands and feet. It is considered a neuropathic pain disorder, meaning it is caused by damage, irritation or destruction of nerves. While experts aren't exactly sure of the exact cause of CRPS, they believe it is likely caused by either an overactive immune system response or a dysfunction in the sympathetic nervous system. Sometimes, people develop CRPS after an accident or illness that affects the nerves.

People with CRPS often experience skin texture changes as a result of their condition, along with other symptoms such as swelling, joint stiffness, burning or stabbing pain and hypersensitivity.

In some people, skin can become pale, red, purple or spotty and can look thin and shiny.

Diabetic Neuropathy

Another chronic nerve pain condition that can cause skin changes is diabetic neuropathy, a group of nerve disorders caused by diabetes. Diabetic neuropathy can develop in people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, usually affecting those with type 2 diabetes faster than those with type 1 diabetes, especially if left untreated.

The most common form is peripheral neuropathy, which can cause numbness or pain in the toes, feet and legs, as well as the hands and arms. This can lead to infections and other skin problems ​because it's possible to have a wound without knowing it.

Protect Your Skin

Luckily, there are steps you can take to protect your skin, even if you do experience chronic nerve pain. If you have diabetes, managing your illness is key to avoid developing diabetic neuropathy. However, if you do develop numbness, proper foot care is key. Cleaning with mild soap and applying moisturizer to any dry or cracked skin are a couple of steps that can help avoid complications, as can wearing protective footwear and clean socks and avoiding going barefoot.

If you have CRPS, exercising and moving the affected limb can help you avoid swelling and joint stiffness by maintaining flexibility and preventing muscle loss. Your doctor may be able to prescribe medications that will help control symptoms and may help with skin texture and color issues.

Sources:

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet.

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