November is International Nerve Pain Awareness Month, so now is a perfect time to go over what neuropathic pain is, what causes nerve impingements, symptoms to watch out for, and some treatments for nerve pain. You will also learn how your brain responds to neuropathic, or nerve pain and why it can cause so many uncomfortable symptoms. Physical therapists can then assess the causes specific to you and bridge the gap to understand and overcome your nerve pain.
What are Nerves and Nerve Pain?
Nerves transmit and receive information through the spinal cord. They allow communication between your brain, the central nervous system (CNS), your tissues (skin, muscle, ligaments, tendons, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, heart, lungs, etc), and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).
Where Does Nerve Pain Come From?
Nerve pain, also known as neuropathic pain, can come from anywhere since nerves are everywhere throughout your body. However, if you have an area of your body where tissue rubs or compresses a nerve, it can cause pain directly at the site of injury as well as further up or down your body. You might have heard you have a “pinched nerve” in your hip flexor, neck and back, carpal tunnel. Or maybe you have been diagnoses with a more technical term, such as sciatica or a cervical and lumbar radiculopathy. All of these terms mean there is something causing injury or compression to a nerve somewhere in your body.
What Does Nerve Pain Feel Like?
When you feel nerve pain, symptoms might be numbness and tingling or a burning pain that travels down your body. If you can recall the last time your arm “fell asleep” when you were lying in an awkward position, it is because you were compressing a nerve running down your arm. When this happens, I bet you changed positions to relieve the compression and it went away. However, if the compression comes from a musculoskeletal problem, it’s not as easy to solve.
Some common musculoskeletal problems that can cause a nerve to become irritated are an inflamed muscle or decreased joint space in your spine. When this happens, it is harder to find a position or movement that will reduce the nerve impingement. This can cause neural tension, meaning the nerve loses its usual mobility and ease to glide through your tissues as you move. It can be tricky component to recognize the aggravating and easing positions, movements, and activities, is that nerve pain can have a latent response, meaning you can do something to aggravate it now, but will not feel the pain for hours afterwards.
How Does the Brain Process Nerve Pain?
On top of all the complexities the peripheral nerves can cause, the brain comes in and complicates it further. On the most basic level, without the brain, we do not experience pain. The sensory stimulus (nociception) that travels to and up our spinal cord to our brain is one of several samplings the brain is taking in at any given point in time. The subconscious brain in real-time is then bringing what it deems important to the forefront into the conscious level. If the experience meets the “danger to your health” criteria, you feel pain. It is much easier for the brain to accept the nociceptive stimulus from an obvious place, but when it does not know where the pain is coming from and what aggravates and eases the pain, it becomes a bigger problem.
What is Nerve Pain and How Does the Brain React to Pain?
Pain is “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with… actual or potential tissue damage.” An example of this is when you cut your finger. Do you remember what happened the last time you cut your finger across a joint? It’s fairly common for you to forget this process, because your brain heals and protects this injured joint without you having to think about it.
Your brain protects an injured joint by limiting the joint’s movement. Your brain is also taking constant notes on how the healing process is going; such as, does it feel swollen or hot, or does it look infected? Once the injury has achieved the amount of healing that your brain is comfortable with, it will start allowing you some movement. You aren’t sitting there waiting for the most optimal time and with conscious effort moving the joint for the first time. It is mainly happening on a subconscious level and has happened thousands of times in your life when recuperating from skinned knees, bruises, or scrapes.
This process when it comes to nerve pain is more complicated. Your brain isn’t sure of what tissue is injured, where it is injured, or how to remove the pressure or irritation on the injured tissue. Pain is a response to try to limit your movement so you can heal. It emits pain where your brain thinks a problem could be located. Imagine that cut on your finger and how it would heal if you kept poking at it and irritating it, not allowing the healing process to do its work? It would take a lot longer, right? Right. That’s why nerve pain takes so long to heal from.
How Can You Tell What’s Causing Your Nerve Pain?
Now imagine your sciatica nerve pain is being triggered by a tight or inflamed piriformis muscle or a lumbar radiculopathy, how do you know and what can you do about it? A lumbar radiculopathy can come from a disc herniation in which disc material might be compressing a nerve root. You might think surgery is the best option. While that is sometimes true, there might also be strategies to relieve your pain by improving the movement of the nerve and spacing of the nerve through appropriate positioning.
How To Relieve Nerve Pain
There are positions that will relieve your symptoms based on what is causing your pain and where it originates. A skilled practitioner like a physical therapist can help you identify these symptom-relieving positions and exercises. A physical therapist can help identify how you are continuing to aggravate the nerve and find strategies to reduce the irritation. They also can help with prolonged relief by finding the best exercises for you to glide the nerve through the tissue to help release your neural tension. Samples of these exercises can be found here. A physical therapist can then guide you on your way to gradually get back to the activities you were doing before through pacing strategies.
I hope to have provided you with a better understanding of what causes nerve impingements, symptoms, and some treatments for nerve pain. You are not alone in your experience, and there are specialists trained to help you understand and overcome your nerve pain. Physical therapists are trained to assess and help you actively restore your nerves causing you pain. Reach out today, because you don’t have to live with nerve pain.
About Live Life Physiotherapy
Live Life Physiotherapy provides an COVID-19-friendly alternative to travelling to a physical therapy clinic, through mobile physical therapy. We provide outpatient care to San Diego, La Mesa, El Cajon, Santee, and the surrounding area.
Outpatient physical therapy includes but isn’t limited to; telehealth physical therapy, rehabilitation physical therapy, labral tears, sciatica, low back pain, elderly fall prevention, orthopedic and sports physical therapy. Reach out today so we can help you Live Life, the way you want to live it.