Neck Neuropathy and Neuropathic Pain

Neck and arm pain
Neck and arm pain. Yagi Studio/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Neck Neuropathy and Neuropathic Pain

Neuropathic pain, in contrast to nociceptive pain, occurs when nerve fibers become damaged, traumatized and/or dysfunctional. As a result, the signals sent to you by the damaged fibers may seem like they don't make sense.

To best understand neuropathic pain, let's talk briefly about what nerves do.  Their job is to relay messages to and from the brain and spinal cord about what's going on (and what to do about it) in tissues, organs, muscles and more.

 If you twist your ankle or burn your hand on a hot stove, for example, your nerves go right to work communicating to the brain and spinal cord about what happened; they also receive and carry response signals from the brain, delivering these back to the body tissues that were involved in the inciting incident (I.e., your ankle or your hand.)  These response signals are actually impulses to move.  In this case, they may prompt you to take your hand away from the stove burner, or to run it under cold water to decrease the pain.

Nociceptive pain is the term used to describe the result of this communication provided by your working nerves.

But when the nerves themselves are injured, you may get neuropathic pain. Injured nerves can become active for no reason -- that is, they may "fire" but not in response to changes that are going on in the tissues, organs or muscles they serve.

Neuropathic pain is generally related to peripheral nerves, i.e. nerves that have branched off from the spinal cord.

 The brain and the spinal cord comprise the central nervous system, and the peripheral nerves constitute the peripheral nervous system.

What Does Neuropathic Pain Feel Like?

According to Dr. Zinovy Meyler, an Osteopath from Princeton, New Jersey, neuropathic pain can be very severe.  It can be sharp, or feel like an electrical shock, or pins and needles.

 It can also manifest as a deep burning sensation or coldness in your limbs, he says.  Other symptoms that go along with neuropathic pain include numbness, weakness or altered sensation anywhere along the path the nerve travels.

Neuropathic pain can intensify sensation but it may also decrease sensation, Meyer says.  It is caused by a number of things including diabetes, compression of a spinal nerve root (called radiculopathy.) And, he adds, neuropathic pain can be caused by things that damage nerves such as chemotherapy or radiation.

Neuropathic Pain in the Neck

A common type of neck neuropathy is called cervical radiculopathy.  Radiculopathy refers to compression of a spinal nerve root where it exits the spinal cord to begin to branch out all over the body.  Cervical radiculopathy is often caused by a herniated disc in the neck.  It's possible to get lumbar neuropathic pain - i.e., lumbar radiculopathy, as well.

Learn more about cervical radiculopathy:  

Sources:

Gould, H., MD, Phd. Understanding Pain: What It Is, Why It Happens, and How It's Managed. AAN Press. 2007. St. Paul, MN.

Guyton, A., MD, Hall, J., MD. Textbok of Medical Physiology. 11th ed. Elsevier Saunders. 2006. Philadelphia.

Hanline, B., MD. Back Pain Understood: A Cutting-Edge Approach to Healing Your Back. Medicus Press. 2007.

Meyler, Z., D.O. Causes of Neuropathic Pain Video. Spine-Health website. Accessed: Feb 2016. http://www.spine-health.com/video/causes-neuropathic-pain-video

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