How to Tell If You’re Experiencing Nerve Pain or Something Else

Man holding knee in pain

The nervous system is incredibly complex, with more neural connections in the human brain than there are atoms in the universe. With a universe and more contained just inside our heads, there is certainly an abundance of activity, from telling our cells to grow, multiply, and die, to interpreting language and symbols, to feeling and experiencing the sensations of the external world. So when any number of these connections becomes interrupted or damaged, the results can be alarming, confusing, misleading, or all of the above. How will you know, for example, whether the pain you are experiencing is a damaged nerve or a pulled muscle? Is all pain the same?

The most important thing to remember is that nerve damage doe not just result in pain. It can take a number of forms: numbness, tingling, burning, immobility, headaches, sweating, and more. Sometimes nerve damage can be determined not by what you feel, but by what you don’t feel, such as sustaining an injury from a stove that you could not feel was hot, or not feeling that your bladder is full until it’s too late.

Still, nerve pain can be especially harrowing, as it often like tingling, burning or sharp pain. This sort of pain in one leg can mean that you have sciatica, when a herniated disc or diabetes damages or compresses the sciatic nerve. Compare this to muscle pain, which results from strain, and often feels like an ache as opposed to a sharp burning or tingling.

Nerve pain has a number of causes as disparate as its symptoms. The top causes, according to Andrew Elkwood, MD, of the Institute for Advanced Reconstruction, are diabetes, genetics (bad luck), repetitive motion and Lyme disease. Other significant causes include trauma, aging, vitamin deficiencies, exposure to toxins, and infections and autoimmune disorders like hepatitis C, diphtheria, HIV, Epstein-Barr, rheumatoid arthritis, and Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Still, about a third of all nerve pain has an unknown cause. Luckily, nerve damage often develops slowly, so you should see a doctor immediately if you are experiencing any of the above-mentioned symptoms.