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Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Alternative treatment, Prognosis

Neuralgia is defined as an intense burning or stabbing pain caused by irritation of or damage to a nerve. The pain is usually brief but may be severe. It often feels as if it is shooting along the course of the affected nerve.


Different types of neuralgia occur depending on the reason the nerve has been irritated. Neuralgia can be triggered by a variety of causes, including tooth decay, eye strain, or shingles (an infection caused by the herpes zoster virus). Pain is usually felt in the part of the body that is supplied by the irritated nerve.

Causes and symptoms

Neuralgia is caused by irritation or nerve damage from systemic disease, inflammation, infection, and compression or physical irritation of a nerve. The location of the pain depends on the underlying condition that is irritating the nerve or the location of the particular nerve that is being irritated.

Neuralgia can result from tooth decay, poor diet, eye strain, nose infections, or exposure to damp and cold. Postherpetic neuralgia is an intense debilitating pain felt at the site of a previous attack of shingles. Trigeminal neuralgia (also called tic douloureux, the most common type of neuralgia), causes a brief, searing pain along the trigeminal nerve, which supplies sensation to the face. The facial pain of migraine neuralgia lasts between 30 minutes and an hour and occurs at the same time on successive days. The cause is not known.

Glossopharyngeal neuralgia is an intense pain felt at the back of the tongue, in the throat, and in the ear—all areas served by the glossopharyngeal nerve. The pain may occur spontaneously, or it can be triggered by talking, eating, or swallowing (especially cold foods such as ice cream). Its cause is not known.

Occipital neuralgia is caused by a pinched occipital nerve. There are two occipital nerves, each located at the back of the neck, each supplying feeling to the skin over half of the back of the head. These nerves can be pinched due to factors ranging from arthritis to injury, but the result is the same: numbness, pain, or tingling over half the base of the skull.


Neuralgia is a symptom of an underlying disorder; its diagnosis depends on finding the cause of the condition creating the pain.

To diagnose occipital neuralgia, a doctor can inject a small amount of anesthetic into the region of the occipital nerve. If the pain temporarily disappears, and there are no other physical reasons for the pain, the doctor may recommend surgery to deal with the pinched nerve.


Glossopharyngeal, trigeminal, and postherpetic neuralgias sometimes respond to anticonvulsant drugs, such as carbamazepine or phenytoin, or to painkillers, such as acetaminophen. Trigeminal neuralgia may also be relieved by surgery in which the nerve is cut or decompressed. In some cases, compression neuralgia (including occipital neuralgia) can be relieved by surgery.

People with shingles should see a doctor within three days of developing the rash, since aggressive treatment of the blisters that appear with the rash can ease the severity of the infection and minimize the risk of developing postherpetic neuralgia. However, it is not clear whether the treatment can prevent postherpetic neuralgia.

If postherpetic neuralgia develops, a variety of treatments can be tried, since their effectiveness varies from person-to-person.

  • antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil)
  • anticonvulsants (phenytoin, valproate, or carbamazepine)
  • capsaicin (Xostrix), the only medication approved by the FDA for treatment of postherpetic neuralgia
  • topical painkillers
  • desensitization
  • TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)
  • dorsal root zone (DREZ) surgery (a treatment of last resort)

Alternative treatment

B-complex vitamins, primarily given by intramuscular injection, can be an effective treatment. A whole foods diet with adequate protein, carbohydrates, and fats that also includes yeast, liver, wheat germ, and foods that are high in B vitamins may be helpful. Acupuncture is a very effective treatment, especially for postherpetic neuralgia. Homeopathic treatment can also be very effective when the correct remedy is used. Some botanical medicines may also be useful. For example, black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) appears to have anti-inflammatory properties based on recent research.


The effectiveness of the treatment depends on the cause of the neuralgia, but many cases respond to pain relief.

Trigeminal neuralgia tends to come and go, but successive attacks may be disabling. Although neuralgia is not fatal, the patient's fear of being in pain can seriously interfere with daily life.

Some people with postherpetic neuralgia respond completely to treatment. Most people, however, experience some pain after treatment, and a few receive no relief at all. Some people live with this type of neuralgia for the rest of their lives, but for most, the condition gradually fades away within five years.



Loeser, J. "Cranial Neuralgias." In The Management of Pain. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1990.


Fields, H. "Treatment of Trigeminal Neuralgia." The New England Journal of Medicine 334 (Apr. 1996): 1125-1126.


American Chronic Pain Association. P.O. Box 850, Rocklin, CA 95677-0850. (916) 632-0922. <http://members.tripod.com/~widdy/ACPA.html>.

National Chronic Pain Outreach. P.O. Box 274, Millboro, VA 24460. (540) 997-5004.

Trigeminal Neuralgia/Tic Douloureux Association. P.O. Box 340, Barnegat Light, NJ 08006. (609) 361-1014.

Carol A. Turkington


Desensitization—A technique of pain reduction in which the painful area is stimulated with whatever is causing the pain.

Dorsal root entry zone (DREZ)—A type of nerve surgery for postherpetic neuralgia that is occasionally used when the patient can get no other pain relief. The surgery destroys the area where damaged nerves join the central nervous system, thereby interfering with inappropriate pain messages from nerves to the brain.

Glossopharyngeal neuralgia—Sharp recurrent pain deep in the throat that extends to the area around the tonsils and possibly the ear. It is triggered by swallowing or chewing.

Migraine neuralgia—A variant of migraine pain, also called cluster headache, in which severe attacks of pain affect the eye and forehead on one side of the face.

Occipital neuralgia—Pain on one side of the back of the head caused by entrapment or pinching of an occipital nerve.

Postherpetic neuralgia—Persistent pain that occurs as a complication of a herpes zoster infection. Although the pain can be treated, the response is variable.

Shingles—A painful rash with blisters that appears along the course of a nerve. It is caused by infection with herpes zoster virus.

TENS—The abbreviation for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, a technique used to control chronic pain. Electrodes placed over the painful area deliver a mild electrical impulse to nearby nerve pathways, thereby easing pain.

Trigeminal neuralgia—Brief episodes of severe shooting pain on one side of the face caused by inflammation of the root of the trigeminal nerve. Also referred to as tic douloureux.

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