Anti-seizure medications: Relief from nerve pain

Anti-seizure drugs often are used to help control the type of pain caused by damaged nerves. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Anti-seizure medications were originally designed to treat people with epilepsy. But the nerve-calming qualities of some of these medications can also help quiet the burning, stabbing or shooting pain often caused by nerve damage.

Why does it hurt?

Nerves can be damaged by many things, including injury, surgery, disease or exposure to toxins. The damaged nerves are activated inappropriately and send pain signals that don't serve a useful purpose. This type of pain can be debilitating and difficult to control.

Nerve damage (neuropathy) can be caused by many conditions, including:

  • Diabetes. High blood sugar levels, common in diabetes, can damage nerves throughout your body. The first symptom generally is numbness and pain in your hands and feet (diabetic neuropathy).
  • Shingles. Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of shingles, a rash of blisters that can be painful or itchy. A condition called postherpetic neuralgia occurs if shingles pain persists after the rash disappears.

    Because the risk of shingles increases with age, everyone age 50 and older should receive the varicella-zoster virus vaccine (Zostavax), which can help prevent this painful condition.

  • Chemotherapy. Some chemotherapy drugs can damage nerves, causing pain and numbness that generally begin in the tips of your toes and fingers (neuropathy).
  • Herniated disk. Nerve damage can occur if a herniated disk in your spine squeezes a nerve passing through your vertebrae too tightly.
  • Fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes pain and tenderness throughout your body.

How do anti-seizure drugs help?

The exact mechanism of action isn't fully understood, but anti-seizure medications appear to interfere with the overactive transmission of pain signals sent from damaged nerves.

Some anti-seizure drugs work particularly well for certain conditions. Carbamazepine (Carbatrol, Tegretol) is widely prescribed for trigeminal neuralgia, a condition that causes searing facial pain that feels like an electric shock.

It's important to note that the Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning that all anti-seizure medications are associated with a slightly increased risk of suicidal thoughts or actions. Talk to a doctor or counselor promptly if you feel depressed or suicidal.

Aug. 22, 2013 See more In-depth