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…patients with spinal cord injuries often suffer from excruciating pain? Our colleague Wolfgang Illek is quadriplegic and knows why.
I have a spinal cord injury. Even though I can no longer feel my legs, they can still suddenly start hurting immensely. Sometimes it feels like thousands of needles are piercing them. On other occasions, it feels as if I have just got into a trough filled with ice-cold water or as if my legs have been pinched off with a rough rope.
Many other patients feel just like I do. We suffer from a phenomenon that specialists call neuropathic pain. These pains mostly occur without warning within a split second. Even though the pain can - in some cases - subside within minutes, I often experience it for hours or even days. There are also different intensities in terms of the pain level. While some merely feel a slight sting, others are in so much pain that they despair.
We still don’t really know why one can experience such pain despite being paralysed. One explanation is that the nervous system changes biochemically and structurally after a spinal cord injury. The stimulation of the nerve cells increases without inhibitory signals. This means that the nervous system is out of balance, which the brain ultimately perceives as pain.
Unfortunately, there are hardly any effective ways to alleviate this particular problem at this point in time. Standard painkillers are often only moderately effective. Physiotherapy and other treatments can also only help to a certain extent. This is why scientists are trying to influence the pain with agents that interfere with the formation or transmission of nerve impulses (e.g. calcium or sodium channel blockers). However, the last resort is often the use of hard drugs such as opioids.
Personally, I often find relief in heat treatments and cryotherapy. Even though I have more or less learned how to handle the pain, I - like so many others who are affected - am hoping for a breakthrough in pain research.
Wings for Life wants to find a cure for spinal cord injuries and also supports neuropathic pain research programmes. Please support us.