Nerves are responsible for sending electrical signals to the brain, similar to what happens when a plug is inserted into an outlet. When discomfort is related to nerve tissue that’s inflamed, irritated, or compressed, it’s called neuropathic (“along the pathway of the nerve”) pain. This type of discomfort can be felt in different ways, such as those mentioned below.
Discomfort related to a damaged or worn spinal disc (discogenic pain) can produce localized nerve pain. This type of pain is primarily felt in the immediate area around the source.
Nerve pain that’s mechanical in nature is related to some type of compression. For instance, you might have mechanical nerve pain if a nerve root is being compressed at the point where it exits the spine, which might happen if a herniated disc blocks the narrow opening in the spine through which the nerve passes. This type of neuropathic pain can extend to any point along the nerve’s pathway.
Another way nerve roots can be irritated is through tissue swelling, or inflammation. One way this can happen is if inner disc material leaks out of a damaged spinal disc, triggering an inflammatory response from the immune system. As with mechanical nerve pain, the resulting irritation can be felt anywhere along the pathway of the nerve.
If you have inflammatory or mechanical nerve pain, discomfort can travel down a leg if the source is a nerve in the lower back area. When this happens, it’s commonly called sciatica or radicular pain. Symptoms related to neuropathic pain can be somewhat unpredictable. The way you experience nerve pain will depend on where the nerve is compressed or irritated. For example, if a nerve in the lower back is affected, you may notice any of the following symptoms:
• Burning sensations in your lower back that may extend to your legs
• Pins-and-needles or prickling sensations that may be felt in your lower back, thighs, and/or legs
• Numbness, tingling, and/or general weakness that may be felt in one or both legs
• Shooting, stabbing, sharp, or shock-like discomfort extending from your lower (lumbar) spine into your lower extremities
With disc-related nerve pain, your discomfort may be felt mainly in your lower back area. In this case, pain might be sudden (acute) or experienced as a dull ache.
Neuropathic pain may occur because of some type of trauma or injury. It can also be aggravated by diabetes, shingles (herpes zoster), tumors, and other underlying health issues. Nerve pain can also become chronic. In some instances, the affected nerve continues to erroneously transmit pain signals to the brain even after the source of the irritation or compression no longer exists. For example, even after a surgical procedure such as lumbar disc replacement, Santa Monica patients may have some occasional periods of neuropathic discomfort.
Nerve-based pain is usually treated with conservative (non-surgical) methods. For many patients, this means a combination of lifestyle adjustments, such as modifying activities, getting more exercise, losing weight, and/or improving posture. Treatment may also involve:
Over-the-counter and prescription medications are usually less effective if the symptoms are nerve related, which is more likely to be the case if the discomfort is chronic (having lasted 3–4 months or more). Another option is to disrupt nerve signals with a device that delivers controlled electrical impulses (spinal cord stimulation). Surgery may also be an option if other treatment methods fail to provide relief.
Because there are many possible sources of neuropathic pain, especially if it originates in the lower back area, you’ll be better off getting an accurate diagnosis from your doctor or a Santa Monica spine surgeon. Otherwise, you may end up only treating the symptoms without addressing the actual source of your discomfort.
If you suspect you have neuropathic pain, call on the spinal health specialists at The Spine Institute. Our pioneering physicians lead the industry in the use of innovative methods and cutting-edge technology to diagnose and alleviate neck and back pain. To schedule a consultation, call one of our friendly representatives today at 310-828-7757.