The terms neuralgia and neuropathic pain are often confused or used interchangeably. Understandably, the line between the two can be blurry, and distinguishing between the two conditions can be confusing. So, what is the difference between neuralgia and neuropathic pain?
What is Neuralgia?
Neuralgia refers to specific diagnosable medical conditions caused by nerve damage or malfunction. These conditions can result from an injury, infection, or other underlying health conditions.
Neuralgia can be short-lived or chronic and can affect any part of the body. In most cases, the pain is felt along the path of the affected nerve but can also affect the organ(s) supplied by that nerve.
Trigeminal neuralgia: This is a sharp, shooting pain that occurs in the face. It’s often caused by compression of the trigeminal nerve (the fifth cranial nerve), which extends from the brain to the face. This nerve has three branches: ophthalmic, maxillary, and mandibular. Trigeminal neuralgia mainly affects the maxillary or mandibular branch, causing pain in the cheek, jaw, or teeth.
Postherpetic neuralgia: This is a common type of neuralgia that occurs after a person has had shingles. Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus – the same virus that causes chickenpox. Postherpetic neuralgia can cause burning, stabbing, or aching pain that can last for months or even years after the shingles rash has gone away.
Occipital neuralgia: This is a sharp, shooting pain that affects the back of the head and neck. It is caused by compression or irritation of the occipital nerves, which run from the base of the skull to the top of the spine.
Intercostal neuralgia: This is a sharp, shooting pain that occurs along the ribs. It is caused by compression or irritation of the intercostal nerves, which are a group of nerves located just below the ribs. Symptoms include sharp pain that affects the upper abdomen, chest, or upper back.
Glossopharyngeal neuralgia: This is a rare condition that causes sudden, severe attacks of pain in the throat, tongue, and ear. It’s caused by compression or irritation of the glossopharyngeal nerve (the ninth cranial nerve), which is a large nerve that extends from the brain to the throat, tongue, and ear. Glossopharyngeal neuralgia is often caused by a tumor or other growth that presses on the nerve.
What is Neuropathic Pain?
Unlike neuralgia, neuropathic pain is not a diagnosable medical condition but rather a general term used to describe a full range of pain conditions caused by nerve damage, irritation, or dysfunction. Essentially, any type of pain caused by abnormal function of the nervous system can be classified as neuropathic pain, including neuralgia.
Common symptoms of neuropathic pain include:
- Burning sensations
- Sharp, shooting, or electric-like pain
- Pain that feels like it’s coming from inside the body
- Pain that is worse at night or with temperature changes
Neuralgia and Neuropathic Pain Treatment
Since neuralgia and neuropathic pain are both caused by damage to or dysfunction of the nervous system, treatments tend to overlap. Common treatments for neuralgia and neuropathic pain include:
Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help relieve mild to moderate pain. For more severe pain, your doctor may prescribe more potent pain relievers, such as opioids or antidepressants. Ketamine infusions and nerve blocks are also used to manage severe or treatment-resistant nerve pain.
In some cases, surgery may be necessary to correct nerve damage and alleviate pain. For instance, surgery may be required to remove a tumor that is pressing on a nerve or relieve pressure on a compressed nerve. Surgery procedures for nerve-related pain include nerve decompression, rhizotomy, and cordotomy.
Neuropathic pain is a general term used to describe all pain conditions caused by damage to or dysfunction of the nervous system, one of which is neuralgia. In most cases, neuropathic pain can be effectively managed with conservative treatments like medication and physical therapy. However, in some cases, more aggressive treatment like surgery may be necessary.