Pain is the body’s way of telling us something is wrong. Here’s what you need to know about dealing with chronic or severe nerve pain. By Foo Jie Ying
At least half the athletes who turn up at Dr Ang Kian Chuan’s clinic suffer from neuropathic pain from sports injuries.
That is how common the ailment is among sportsmen, said the orthopaedic surgeon (knee, shoulder and sports surgery) at OrthoSports.
Commonly known as nerve pain, it is usually accompanied by tissue injury.
Tissues have a nerve supply. When the nerves are working well, they send signals that we interpret as pain.
With neuropathic pain, there is irritation or compression of the nerve, and the nerve itself is injured. These damaged nerve fibres send incorrect signals to other pain centres.
This could result in a change in nerve function both at the site of injury and areas around the injury.
Mild nerve pain can be left untreated, but severe pain – an indicator of serious nerve damage – can lead to permanent nerve injuries.
When in doubt, always see a doctor. It is never advisable to self-medicate, said Dr Ang.
Can nerve pain be prevented?
It depends on the condition. Some can be somewhat prevented, like avoiding excessive weight lifting. Some can’t – these usually have a genetic or familial cause.
Will the patient be able to go back to this condition before the injury?
That depends on the severity of the condition and how effective the treatment has been. Most people recover well by the end of six weeks.
How can nerve pain be treated?
Rest and medication are the mainstays of treatment. Physiotherapy is also important. Lyrica is an essential part of my practice with regard to neuropathic pain. It works effectively and has minimal contraindications (a specific situation in which a drug, procedure, or surgery should not be used because it may be harmful to the person) and side effects.
Our treatment is generally guided by the patients’ expectations and needs. A young working adult or a professional athlete may need to return to work or sport more quickly than, say, a retiree. Hence, they may wish to have more aggressive treatment, like surgery. Of course, with an increasingly active and affluent silver population, these distinctions are blurring.
What can patients then do to manage the pain if it does not go away?
Occasionally, surgery is needed. Usually, this will consist of procedures to decompress the nerve, like removing the source of the nerve injury.
If a nerve is compressed or irritated for a long time, it may lead to permanent damage. This would impact on the ability of the nerve to function – it doesn’t transmit signals as well as it should.
Occasionally, patients will complain of permanent numbness or weakness when this happens. Permanently injured nerves can also become dysfunctional, or become chronically painful.
A version of this story first appeared in the online edition of The New Paper on March 6, 2017, with the headline, ‘Don’t leave neuropathic pain untreated’.