Neuropathic pain after spinal cord injury can cause you to feel pain in parts of your body that are otherwise paralyzed.
Nerve damage makes your nervous system misinterpret stimuli and overreact.
Pain after spinal cord injury is extremely common and can significantly affect your quality of life.
According to this article, approximately “40% to 60% of all SCI patients develop [neuropathic pain] at or below the level of injury and half of them report pain levels as moderate to severe”.
What Causes Neuropathic Pain After Spinal Cord Injury?
Think about when you’re on a phone call and have poor reception. While you might be able to hear some things, other things get cut off.
After a spinal cord injury, the brain is put in a similar situation where it can’t fully understand the signals the body is sending.
Because some sort of connection still exists between the brain and body, you feel pain.
Different neural circuits are spared with each spinal cord injury, which is why the way people describe neuropathic pain tends to vary.
Some describe it as burning or stabbing pain, while others claim tingling or pins and needles.
Treatments For Neuropathic Pain After Spinal Cord Injury
It’s important to keep in mind that what works for one person may not work for another.
Often, a combination of treatments results in the best neuropathic pain relief.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) are accessible pain relievers that you can purchase at any drug store.
Antidepressants can relieve neuropathic pain after spinal cord injury and also treat signs of depression caused by chronic pain.
It’s not exactly known why antidepressants can reduce neuropathic pain, but it’s likely due to increasing the number of neurotransmitters along spinal pathways.
Common side effects of antidepressants are dry mouth, constipation, and bladder retention.
Although you may not be having seizures, anticonvulsants can help calm down the nerves so that your pain isn’t so severe. Side effects can include feeling sedated or dizzy.
Opioids like morphine and oxycodone can effectively relieve neuropathic pain after spinal cord injury. However, they can also cause addiction, dependence, tolerance, and constipation.
Opioids are not cheap, and their addictive and tolerance-building qualities can be very harmful.
Topical treatments like lidocaine (a numbing medication) and diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory gel) are also used to reduce pain.
However, they can be limiting because they only work on the areas where they’re applied.
Did you know that electrical stimulation was initially used to treat chronic pain?
This involves an invasive procedure in which a stimulator is implanted onto your spine.
It sends electrical charges through your body that can interrupt, distract, or block pain signals.
While non-invasive electrical stimulation methods do exist, they deliver less precise impulses.
Alternative Treatments for Neuropathic Pain After Spinal Cord Injury
Alternative treatments for neuropathic pain include marijuana, acupuncture, and massage therapy.
Although some studies suggest that these interventions can help treat neuropathic pain, they lack consistency and need further testing.
On the bright side, these alternative therapies have less harmful side effects than pharmaceutical treatments.
This survey asked 117 spinal cord injury patients about treatments they’ve used for pain and the effectiveness of them.
Out of all eight nonpharmaceutical treatments (including massage, acupuncture, hypnosis, and seeing a chiropractor), marijuana was reported to provide the most pain relief.
Studies also suggest that marijuana can reduce spasticity and the pain associated with it.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese therapy that consists of placing thin, hairlike needles onto acupoints for healing purposes.
This practice has been adopted in the West mostly for pain management but has yielded mixed results, especially for SCI-induced pain.
Electroacupuncture uses a combination of electrical stimulation and acupuncture by applying electrical charges to the needles.
It’s suggested that electroacupuncture can provide better neuropathic pain relief than traditional acupuncture.
The most common alternative treatment used to treat pain after spinal cord injury is massage therapy.
It can help improve blood circulation so that your cells are receiving adequate oxygen and nutrients.
While medications provide pain relief for several hours, massage therapy results in pain relief that lasts for days.
Living with Neuropathic Pain After Spinal Cord Injury
Living with neuropathic pain can definitely make life difficult by interfering with daily activities, sleep, and relationships.
Neurogenic pain is a type of chronic pain experienced after spinal cord injury, meaning that it lasts for long periods of time like months or even years.
The severity of your neurogenic pain will vary day to day or even hour to hour.
Be sure to stay on top of your treatments to best manage your neuropathic pain after spinal cord injury. This could take some trial and error, but once you find the right combination of treatments for you, living with neuropathic pain won’t be such a burden.