Recovering from a traumatic nerve injury or viral nerve damage can be a lengthy and frustrating process. It can take months to regain function, and there’s no way of telling whether a person will be able to move, feel, or do things the way they used to. While nerve damage isn’t always irreparable, it can be difficult to treat, and even more difficult to reverse.
Understanding the way our nerves work can help patients better understand their treatment options, understand how and why some of their symptoms develop and have realistic expectations for recovery.
How Does Nerve Damage Occur?
Our nerves branch throughout the entire body, from the top of our head to the tip of our toes. Nerves play a role in the movement, voluntary and involuntary, as well as in each of our senses. They relay stimuli and information and make thought possible. Nerves consist of nerve cells, called neurons, which communicate and interact through synapses, formed between dendrites and axon terminals.
Mechanisms of interaction between multiple nerves range from chemical signals to electrical ones, leading to simple reactions such as the flinch of an eyelid, to involuntary movements like the beating of a heart, to more complex, conscious movements, such as walking.
However, a million things can disrupt these functions. Heat, cold, physical trauma, inflammation, viral infection, demyelination through blood sugar or alcohol, neurotoxic agents, and aging are a few ways in which neurons can be affected or destroyed, and nerves can be disrupted, broken, or damaged.
The result of such damage ranges from disrupting sensation and movement, leading to a lack of feeling, or a lack of strength in a given area of the body, to the effects of damage in the sympathetic nervous system, such as involuntary and excessive sweating, irregular heartbeat, respiratory distress, and digestive issues.
Can Damaged Nerves Heal?
Most nerve damage occurs in the peripheral nervous system, which encompasses every neuron that isn’t directly part of the brain or spinal cord. These nerves have the capacity to reform their myelin sheaths, regenerate new cells, and reconnect through time and guidance.
Severed nerves in the hand can be carefully reconstructed to allow for regained mobility, for example, and damaged peripheral nerves can heal on their own over time, given the right conditions, and provided the damage isn’t too extreme.
Damage to the central nervous system is different. A severed spinal cord cannot yet be healed, and paralysis due to damage to the spine is usually permanent. Decades of research have gone into finding ways to stimulate nerve cell growth in the spinal cord, but we haven’t figured it out yet.
The central nervous system has its own way of dealing with damage – while it cannot reconstitute lost brain matter, the rest of our spinal cord and brain can rework and reconfigure to make up for the loss via neuroplasticity, a biological effect that can only be described as the ability to adapt.
Through repetition and practice, both the brain and spinal cord make use of spared neural pathways to reenable old skills, whether it’s improving memory or relearning how to walk.
Human interventions are key to helping the nerves in the body regain function and improve a patient’s quality of life. Severed peripheral nerves can be guided back together in reconstructive surgery.
Nerve tissue from a different part of the body – or a different human being altogether – can be repurposed to create new pathways for the nerve. But sadly, the most difficult truth when dealing with nerve damage is that nothing is truly guaranteed. Recovery is lengthy, and the results may vary from patient to patient.
Nerve Damage and Pain
One of the senses that our nervous system controls are the sense of pain. Pain signals are the body’s clear way of telling us that something is very wrong. Usually, as a warning to prevent further damage. In matters of simple cause and effect, touching something too hot will tell the body to get away from the hot thing, instinctively.
Pain can be complicated as well. Pain signals can be fired erroneously, and damaged nerves can fire them off continuously in their confusion. Post-surgical pain is common in patients recovering from a nerve injury, and in some cases, the pain can last longer than other symptoms – even after the nerve is supposed to have healed.
An overuse injury to your wrist may cause your nerves to heal improperly, leading to pain for weeks and months after your wrist’s inner ligaments and tendons have completely recovered. While this type of nerve damage rarely requires surgery, recurring inflammation and nonstop pain may warrant the use of other, less invasive treatment options, such as nerve blocks.
Some illnesses are characterized by a primary symptom of chronic pain with no other physical indications of damage or illness, such as fibromyalgia, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, and multiple sclerosis.
In some of these cases, the immune system is tearing through your nervous system, like lupus. There needn’t be a traumatic injury or prior viral infection to trigger the pain – it just comes on its own.
Recognizing and figuring out the origin of these kinds of neuralgia can be difficult, requiring physical examinations, imaging. The use of certain interventions and medication to rule out potential causes. Once a doctor has a better understanding of what is causing your pain, they will be able to tell you roughly how long you may be recovering from it.
Talking to a Professional
One of the more frustrating elements of treating neuralgia and neuropathic conditions is that recovery can vary significantly from patient to patient. What we do know is that healthy peripheral nerves regrow at a rate of 1 inch per month. This seems quite fast, but it doesn’t mean that inch of fresh nerve fiber tissue is ready to fire on all cylinders.
The recovery process for peripheral nerve damage can take up to a year, and nerve maturation can take another year. Sometimes, it’s faster. Sometimes, it’s slower. Your doctor will be the best person to give you a time estimate depending on the length the nerve will have to regrow. The type of damage dealt, as well as their prior experience with similar injuries and surgeries, and your overall health.
Until then, the recovery process will always benefit from rigorous physical rehabilitation and therapy, a healthy diet conducive to proper nerve growth, abstinence or reduced use of certain substances that can hinder or slow down healing (such as alcohol and tobacco), and sleep.
Mental health treatments are important as well. Low mood and depression can actively enhance pain receptors and slow down healing. It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious and frustrated about the recovery process. Counseling and mental therapy can help patients keep up their spirits and find healthy ways to cope while they heal.
The length and quality of recovery will always differ from person to person. Listen to the experiences of others. Let yourself be inspired by stories of hope and success, and listen to your doctor’s advice.
Contact PMIR today!