Postherpetic Neuralgia And Shingles
- Shingles is a condition that affects one million Americans every year. It is a painful skin condition that causes blisters, itching, and burning.
- Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, so only people who have had chickenpox can get shingles. The chickenpox virus is never completely eradicated after infection, it simply hides in the nerves near the spinal cord.
- As a person ages, their immune system becomes weaker and can no longer suppress the virus, which travels along a nerve pathway to affect a localized area on the skin.
- The most common areas that are infected by shingles are the torso and the face.
- An outbreak of shingles usually lasts about four weeks. After that, the blisters scab over and heal.
- Unfortunately, some people experience persistent, chronic pain caused by shingles. This is called postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN.
What is PHN?
Postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN, is persistent, chronic pain that affects a person long after their shingles have cleared up.
How long does PHN last?
PHN can last from a few months to a few years.
Who is at risk for PHN?
People who get shingles may be at risk for PHN, although not everyone who gets shingles will get PHN. Older people are more at risk for PHN.
What Causes PHN?
PHN is caused by nerve damage to the nerve fibers. This damage can occur during a shingles infection. Damaged fibers can no longer send signals properly, so the signals become confused. The brain interprets these mixed signals as pain.
What are the symptoms of PHN?
Someone suffering from PHN may experience one of more of the following:
- Sharp and jabbing pain
- Deep and aching pain
- Burning pain
- Extreme skin sensitivity to temperature change or touch
- Itching and numbness
- In rare cases, muscle weakness or paralysis
How is PHN Diagnosed?
PHN can be diagnosed when:
- Pain lasts for four months or more after the shingles outbreak.
- Pain persists for 90 days.
- Pain appears after the shingles blisters have healed.
What are some treatments for PHN?
There are many treatments available for PHN. Effectiveness of treatments vary from person to person, so you may have to try multiple treatments before you find one that works for you. Sometimes a combination of treatments is necessary.
- Lidocaine skin patches can be applied to the affected area. These patches contain a topical painkiller. These can only be used short-term, so if your PHN lasts a long time, other treatments may be necessary.
- Antidepressants may be prescribed. These work by altering the brain chemistry to change the way your brain perceives pain. Antidepressants may have negative side effects.
- Injected steroids can help relieve pain, but they may cause negative side effects.
- Painkillers may be prescribed. They are effective at reducing pain, but they may be addictive and are therefore not a viable option for long-term pain management.
Of course, prevention is better than any cure. Preventing shingles or shortening the length of your outbreak may help reduce your chances of developing PHN. The best way to do this is to keep your immune system strong. Diet and exercise are great ways to ensure a healthy immune system.