Nerve Pain in Older People: Is Shingles to Blame?

Neuralgia, or nerve pain, is considered any pain that follows the path of a specific nerve. It can cause sharp, burning pain, usually lasting only a moment but recurring often.

The incidence of neuralgia often increases as we age. Another condition capable of causing neuralgia and occurring more as we age is shingles. Are these two conditions always related or can neuralgia be caused by other things? Often considered an old person's disease, a shingles outbreak is actually possible in anyone who has been infected with chickenpox. This is because chickenpox and shingles are both caused by the Varicella-Zoster virus.

The fact that shingles occurs more often in the elderly has to do with what usually causes a shingles outbreak: immunodeficiency. After your immune system defeated the Varicella-Zoster virus when you got chickenpox, the virus traveled up your nerve fibers went into hiding, most likely in your dorsal root ganglia (nerve bundles of the spinal cord). The virus can come out of this hiding (called latency) when your immune system is weak. When it does, the condition known as shingles is the result.

Many things can cause the immune system to become compromised, including stress, certain medications, and aging. You may have noticed how the body tends to fall apart more often as we age. The same is true of the immune system. That's why elderly people are more susceptible to shingles outbreaks.

Complications of Shingles

Most shingles outbreak progress starting with the prodromal stage which causes a vague burning sensation lasting about 2 to 5 days. After that, a rash of blisters develops which then burst, crust over, and eventually disappear. The whole process takes anywhere from 4 to 5 weeks. For some people, though, the it doesnt end there. A condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) can last for months after a shingles outbreak. PHN causes sharp pains or deep aches along the path of a nerve. Some cases even report muscle weakness and paralysis. It is thought this condition the result of nerve damage caused when the virus was reactivated and traveled through the nerve cells during re-infection. PHN can be frustrating and exhausting, causing depression in many sufferers.

Other Causes of Neuralgia

While PHN is a common cause of neuralgia in elderly people, many other things can create nerve pain as well. The most common form of neuralgia overall is called trigeminal neuralgia. It usually results when the trigeminal nerve (which supplies feeling to the face) is being pushed on by a blood vessel or has been damaged through trauma.

Diabetes can cause neuralgia nearly anywhere in the body. Chronically high blood sugar damages the tiny vessels which supply blood to the nerves. Neurons (nerve cells) then die from lack of oxygen and nutrients. Other things including compression (e.g. tumors) of nerves, infection, certain drugs, arthritis, eye strain, or even poor diet can cause the symptoms of neuralgia.

The location of neuralgia can often gives clues necessary for diagnosis. It is best to work with a medical professional when attempting to diagnose and treat the pain caused by neuralgia.


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