Skip to main content

20 Years Of Helping Australians To Make The Best Decisions About Medicines And Medical Tests

Log in

Sign up

Don't miss out on the latest news, evidence and CPD opportunities on medicines and medical tests - sign up today.

My account

Log in details

My subscriptions

Add subscriptions

My favourites

Nerve pain, explained

When pain continues longer than the time expected for an injury to heal (usually longer than 3 months), it is known as chronic pain. Nerve pain, often called neuropathic pain, is a type of chronic pain that affects about 1 in 20 Australians. Find out more about managing your nerve pain and strategies to help you live with your condition.

4 min read

What is nerve pain?

Nerve pain is caused by damage or injury to the nerves that send messages to the brain to signal pain. Nerve injury can result from medical conditions such as shingles, diabetes, stroke and HIV.

Nerve pain is different from the pain we feel when we cut or burn ourselves (called nociceptive pain). That type of pain is usually a sharp feeling or a dull ache that goes away when the tissue is healed.

Nerve pain is often described as shooting, stabbing or burning sensations. Skin can become numb to light touch or warm objects. Sometimes, things that are not usually painful can cause pain (eg, contact with bedsheets).

Nerve pain can affect your sleep, mood and daily activities. It is important that nerve pain is diagnosed accurately by your GP. After that, you can decide together on how best to manage your condition. 

How is nerve pain diagnosed?

You need a GP to diagnose nerve pain. It cannot be diagnosed by a blood test, X-ray or MRI. A nerve pain diagnosis relies on the clinical judgment of your GP.

Your GP will determine whether your pain is nerve pain by:

  • asking you questions about your pain
  • physically examining your body.

The doctor may touch your skin with a brush or cotton wool, prick your skin with a toothpick or press a cold tube against your skin. It is important to remember that even though you are experiencing a particular type of pain, it may not be nerve pain.

How is nerve pain managed?

After a diagnosis of nerve pain, your GP will discuss the different ways you can manage your symptoms. During these discussions, you and your GP will develop a self-management plan to meet your needs and specific goals. Over time, your needs or circumstances may change, so remember to check in with your GP on a regular basis.

Nerve pain can be difficult to treat so make sure your expectations of your treatment are realistic. Understanding how your condition is managed, and that your pain may not disappear completely, will help you to set realistic expectations around:

  • making the pain ‘tolerable’
  • improving or restoring your quality of life and functioning
  • improving your sleep
  • helping with depression
  • restoring your ability to undertake social activities and work.

Medicines play a limited role in managing nerve pain but your GP may prescribe a medicine to help reduce your symptoms. Having fewer or reduced symptoms can help improve your sleep or mood and let you manage your day-to-day activities more easily. 

Medicines for nerve pain

Because nerve pain is different from other types of pain, simple pain killers (such as paracetamol) and medicines used for inflammatory pain (such as ibuprofen) have very little effect. 

Nerve pain is treated with prescription medicines that can also be used to treat other conditions such as depression and epilepsy. The medicines most commonly prescribed for nerve pain are:

  • tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) medicines (active ingredient: amitriptyline or nortriptyline)
  • antiepileptic medicines (active ingredient: gabapentin or pregabalin)
  • serotonin–noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) (active ingredient: duloxetine or venlafaxine).

For more information, see:

Medicines are used to reduce nerve pain to a level that allows people to resume their daily activities. They are a small piece of the puzzle when managing nerve pain but can be an important part of helping people to get back on track. 

However, less than half of patients with nerve pain achieve adequate pain relief with medicines. Coping strategies (or trying medicine-free options) should be used alongside medicines to help to improve your quality of life.

Coping with nerve pain 

Accepting pain as part of everyday life and trying medicine-free options are important parts of learning how to ‘cope’ with nerve pain. Sometimes, the pain can affect your sleep or daily activities. Some people become depressed because of nerve pain.

Acceptance is a coping strategy that can have positive benefits for people living with nerve pain. Acceptance does not mean giving up or having no control. It is about changing the aim of treatment, from controlling the pain to having better daily function, despite still experiencing pain.

Staying active through exercise, and eating a balanced diet to maintain your physical wellbeing are good starting points to help you manage your condition. Other coping strategies include:

  • setting realistic goals for managing your nerve pain
  • joining a pain support group
  • trying cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • identifying triggers that impact your pain
  • pacing physical therapies around your daily activities
  • recognising the importance of routinely taking your medicine
  • reviewing your management plan regularly with your GP.

Your GP may refer you to a psychologist, physiotherapist or other pain management services to help you with your nerve pain. Some physiotherapists, occupational therapists, nurses and psychologists specialise in managing chronic pain and may be located for referrals through pain networks such as the Australian Pain Society.

4 min read

Date published: 29 January 2018
Reasonable care is taken to provide accurate information at the time of creation. This information is not intended as a substitute for medical advice and should not be exclusively relied on to manage or diagnose a medical condition. NPS MedicineWise disclaims all liability (including for negligence) for any loss, damage or injury resulting from reliance on or use of this information. Read our full disclaimer. This website uses cookies. Read our privacy policy.