Postherpetic neuralgia is a complication of shingles that causes pain to linger on after the rash has healed. This pain can linger for a month, several months or even years. It is often quite intense and may feel unbearable. The condition is called postherpetic because it develops after a shingles infection, which is caused by the herpes virus "varicella- zoster." Neuralgia is a term for nerve pain from inflammation or irritation. These facts about postherpetic neuralgia should help you better understand the condition.
Fact: Postherpetic neuralgia is related to chickenpox
After you get chickenpox as a child, the virus lays dormant in your nerves. Sometimes the virus is reactivated, causing shingles. If you have shingles, you can give another person chickenpox, if that person hasn't had it already. But you can't give another person shingles. You get shingles from your own chickenpox virus. In about 20 percent of shingles cases, the pain lingers after the rash is gone. This is called postherpetic neuralgia.
Fact: Postherpetic neuralgia can cause extreme pain
People with postherpetic neuralgia experience many different kinds of pain, which may feel sharp, burning, jabbing or aching. Pain may be caused by temperature change, and the skin may become so sensitive that even the slightest breeze is painful. They may also experience depression, itching, numbness, muscle weakness, paralysis, headaches and insomnia.
Fact: Postherpetic neuralgia is caused by nerve damage
The nerves were damaged during the shingles outbreak. This means the nerves send confused and exaggerated messages to the brain, causing excruciating pain. This pain can go on for months or even years. The pain occurs in the area that the shingles rash once appeared.
Fact: The elderly are much more likely to experience postherpetic neuralgia
Of all the people who develop shingles, the elderly are much more likely to experience complications, including postherpetic neuralgia. About 10 percent of shingles patients younger than 60 will develop postherpetic neuralgia. 40 percent or more of shingles patients older than 60 will develop postherpetic neuralgia. As a person gets older, the duration, severity and frequency of postherpetic neuralgia increases.
Fact: Postherpetic neuralgia will not kill you
Postherpetic neuralgia causes some of the worst pain that a person can experience, but it will not kill you. The pain is caused by nerve damage, and will eventually subside.
Fact: Capsaicin can help ease the pain of postherpetic neuralgia
Capsaicin is a cream that is made from the seeds of chili peppers. It may irritate your skin at first, but the irritation usually subsides. Be careful not to rub the cream on other, non-affected parts of your body, particularly the eyes. This can cause extreme irritation.
Fact: Epilepsy drugs are used to treat postherpetic neuralgia
While doctors often prescribe pain killers and capsaicin cream to treat postherpetic neuralgia, they also prescribe other medications you might not expect. Anticonvulsant drugs are sometimes used to relieve the pain of postherpetic neuralgia, as are antidepressants and acupuncture. Because some pain killers and other medications can be addictive, doctors are often careful about which medications they prescribe.