Damaged nerves resulting in pain are a common occurrence, but can nerve damage be repaired? Here’s what you should know.
Many systems in the human body exist explicitly to address and heal tissue damage. But some parts of the body heal slower than others, and some cannot heal at all. Nerves, when sufficiently damaged, may not recover on their own, leaving you with immobility and paralysis, lack of feeling, or chronic pain. In other cases, our nerves heal in an improper way, causing long-term, chronic neuropathic pain.
Some nerve damage that the body itself cannot fix can still be fixed by human hands, through surgical and minimally invasive interventions. Learning how and why nerves can be damaged, how they recover by themselves, and under what circumstances you might need significant medical intervention to aid in their repair, will help you gain a more thorough understanding of the processes behind nerve repair.
What Counts as Nerve Damage?
If you’ve ever changed a light fixture or an outlet, you might have worked with electric cabling in your walls and ceilings. These cables are bundles of wiring wrapped in an insulated, color-coded material to indicate the live and neutral wires, as well as the earth wire.
Our nerves are structed much the same way, with bundles of nerve tissue forming larger nerves that relay electrical signals throughout the body, mostly in communication between the brain and the peripheral nerves that control voluntary and involuntary processes, as well as nerve-to-nerve communication.
But like the wiring in your home, different things can go wrong and cut the power. The insulation – or myelin sheathing, in biology – can deteriorate and break down. The nerve itself can be cut. Swelling or compression can reduce blood flow to the surrounding area and kill off the nerve.
Anything that leads to the inhibited function of a nerve in long-term, can induce or be recognized as nerve damage. This includes the results of:
- Alcohol poisoning
- Diabetic neuropath
- Disc herniation
- Nerve trauma
Types of Nerve Damage
To put things into perspective, the National Institutes of Health estimate that there are more than 100 different recognized types of nerve damage, but can nerve damage be repaired? The majority of people suffering from nerve damage suffer from peripheral nerve damage, meaning damage to the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. About 20 million American adults have peripheral nerve damage, including upwards of 70 percent of Americans diagnosed with diabetes.
Under some circumstances, nerves heal and recover. A damaged nerve has the capacity to grow up to a third of an inch in length during recovery, meaning severed nerves can potentially heal and come back together (although it’s unlikely they do so without human intervention and stitching). Some forms of nerve damage can be repaired on their own once the initial cause of the damage is alleviated. However, depending on the severity of the damage, the body simply might not be capable of rebuilding the nerve tissue needed to reform the connection, and restore function.
Whether or not a nerve can be medically repaired depends entirely on the kind of damage it took, and to what degree the nerve has been destroyed. A clean severed nerve is more likely to be repaired than one destroyed over years of illness, or as a result of severe burns.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Nerve Damage
How do you differentiate nerve damage from other kinds of pain? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Even if a damaged nerve is identified and treated, there may still be other reasons the brain is receiving pain signals.
A doctor may be able to recognize potential nerve damage through a physical examination, but in many cases, more thorough tests are needed to determine the extent and nature of the damage. A few common signs of nerve damage in patients include:
- Significant loss of strength, mobility, or fine motor control in one body part.
- Recurring feelings of numbness and tingling accompanied by weakness.
- Loss of feeling in one or more portions of skin.
- Shooting pains or a burning sensation in one limb.
- Loss of certain senses, such as a sense for temperature, a sense of balance, or sense of pain.
- Signs of autonomic nerve damage, including heart rate irregularities, breathing difficulties, thyroid problems, and digestive tract issues.
- Intolerance to slight changes in temperature, and hyperalgesia.
- And others.
When a patient suspects nerve damage or shows signs of nerve damage, or when the condition they are suffering from can often cause secondary neuropathy, a doctor may also check for nerve damage utilizing different tests. These include:
- Nerve conduction studies
- A thorough physical examination
- Magnetic resonance imaging
Can Nerve Damage Be Repaired?
Identifying if nerve damage can be repaired depends on a few factors. The repair process for a damaged nerve depends on the kind of damage a doctor is dealing with. When the body is incapable of repairing the damage itself after the root cause has been alleviated, a patient’s best hope for restored nerve function may be a surgical intervention.
Nerves damaged beyond self-repair may be treated via nerve repair surgery, often utilizing stitching, nerve grafts (from other nerves in the body or donated nerve tissue), and careful dissection of irreparably damaged nerve tissue.
In these cases, doctors utilize EMGs and imaging tests to identify sections of nerves irrevocably damaged by the injury or illness, and remove these carefully, before either bringing the remaining two ends of the nerve together and holding them in place with stitches or utilizing grafted tissue to create an extension for the body to heal around.
If a nerve is compressed or affected by scarred or swollen tissue surrounding it, surgery may also be an option to remove the offending tissue and restore function to the nerve. A herniated disc that won’t heal, or a bone spur pressing on surrounding nerve roots can be surgically treated to create room for the nerve, and help speed up the healing process.
Pain Management and Treatment Options for Nerve Damage
Regardless of whether a nerve can be repaired conservatively or through surgery, a crucially important part of the process is pain management. Nerves are what communicate pain to us, and when nerves themselves are damaged, the pain can be tremendous – and unnaturally long lasting.
Pain management options for neuropathic conditions include:
- Lifestyle changes
- Temporary nerve blocks
- Nerve stimulation
- Narcotic analgesic medication
- Non-opioid painkillers
- Anti-depressant medication
- Antiepileptic medication
- Topical analgesics
- Physical therapy
- Other medications (to control symptoms)
Pain management professionals play an important role in helping patients reduce the impact their diagnosis has on their lives and return much needed quality of life to them. To see if your nerve damage can be repaired, speak to our team of professionals today.