What Type of Nerve Pain Medication Is Right for Me?

Prescription and over-the-counter nerve pain options

When you have neuropathy, pain is usually best managed with what's called a "multimodal treatment approach." That means using different types of treatment instead of relying on just one. This approach includes traditional painkillers, nontraditional pain medications, and other related pain treatments. That's especially important with nerve pain because the causes aren't always understood.

Traditional painkillers used alone, especially non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are often ineffective at treating this type of pain. A multimodal approach does better at keeping neuropathic pain under control, which allows you to function better and have more quality of life.

So the best type of medication for nerve pain is usually a combination of drugs, and the right combination varies from person to person. It all depends on your pain and your needs.

What is Neuropathy?

Neuropathy is disease or dysfunction in the nerves that can cause nerve pain and other abnormal sensations, such as tingling, shooting, "zinging," numbness, and weakness. Pain from neuropathy is called neuropathic pain. While it can strike nerves of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), it's more common in the peripheral nerves (those outside the central nervous system.)

Woman taking medication in pill form

 Paul Bradbury / Caiaimage / Getty Images

What Causes Neuropathy?

This type of pain results from nerve damage. Damaged nerves become hyperexcitable and instead of merely processing pain signals, start creating them. Conditions involving neuropathic pain include:

Other conditions and factors that sometimes can lead to neuropathic pain include:

Adjuvant Analgesics

"Analgesic" means painkiller. Adjuvant analgesics are drugs created to treat other conditions that also happen to have an impact on some types of pain. Anticonvulsants and antidepressants, through their effects on the nervous system, can often combat neuropathic pain sensations.

Only a few of these drugs are specifically approved for pain treatment, so most are used "off-label." Don’t let that worry you, though. Many adjuvant analgesics have proven more effective at treating chronic nerve pain symptoms than traditional painkillers. The two main classes used for neuropathy are anticonvulsants and antidepressants.

Anticonvulsants

Also called anti-seizure or anti-epileptic drugs, anticonvulsants calm hyperexcited nerves and have long been used to treat painful neuropathy. Epilepsy and neuropathic pain actually share certain molecular changes that are involved in nerve hyperexcitability, which helps explain why these drugs are effective against both conditions.

Not all drugs in this class work the same way, so some work better than others for treating specific conditions. Some are approved for pain by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) while others are used off-label. Anticonvulsants used for nerve pain treatment include:

  • Neurontin (gabapentin): FDA approved for post-herpetic neuralgia, used off-label for fibromyalgia, diabetic neuropathy, and other neuropathic pain
  • Lyrica (pregabalin): FDA approved for post-herpetic neuralgia, diabetic neuropathy, fibromyalgia, pain from spinal cord injury, and central neuropathic pain
  • Tegretol (carbamazepine): FDA approved for trigeminal neuralgia, used off-label for diabetic neuropathy and postherpetic neuralgia
  • Trileptal (oxcarbazepine): Used off-label for trigeminal neuralgia and other neuropathic pain
  • Depacon (valproate): Used off-label for diabetic neuropathy

Side Effects and Warnings

Risks and side effects vary by drug. However, the entire anticonvulsant class carries a warning of an increased risk of suicidal thoughts or actions.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Side effects that are common with anticonvulsants are:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision

These effects are generally tolerable and tend to taper off over a few weeks or months. Less common and more serious side effects may include:

  • Skin rashes
  • Liver problems or failure
  • Pancreas problems
  • Low white blood cell count (leukopenia), putting you at risk of infection
  • Low platelet count (thrombocytopenia), putting you at risk of excessive bleeding

Don't Stop Without Medical Advice

Don't stop taking anticonvulsants suddenly. You should only discontinue these medications on the advice of a healthcare provider. Be certain you get guidance on how to gradually taper your dosage so you can avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as altered mental status, agitation, and excessive sweating.

Antidepressants

Antidepressants are believed to treat chronic pain much in the same way they treat depression, which is by altering the nervous system activity of certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers), receptors, and pathways involved in pain processing. Several types of antidepressants exist but only three are used for neuropathy.

  • Tricyclics
  • SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)
  • SNRIs (serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors)

As with anticonvulsants, you need to taper off of antidepressants rather than stopping them suddenly. Your healthcare provider can offer you guidance in the proper way to wean yourself off of these drugs.

Warning: Suicide Risk

All antidepressants are required to carry a black-box warning on their labels about an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Tricyclics

Tricyclic antidepressants work by increasing the amount of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine available to your brain by slowing a recycling process called reuptake. They also block receptors for other neurotransmitters—including acetylcholine and histamine—which makes them unable to send signals via brain cells.

In some people, these drugs can improve the balance of neurotransmitters and improve the way the brain functions. This can have effects on both mood and pain processing and perception. Tricyclics used for treating nerve pain include:

  • Amitriptyline: Used off-label for diabetic neuropathy, postherpetic neuralgia, migraine, and fibromyalgia
  • Aventyl/Pamelor (nortriptyline): Used off-label for postherpetic neuralgia and diabetic neuropathy
  • Norpramin (desipramine): Used off-label for postherpetic neuralgia and diabetic neuropathy

Tricyclics Side Effects

While they vary by drug, general side effects of tricyclic antidepressants include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Increased heart rate
  • Retention of urine
  • Tremor
  • Weight gain

SSRIs

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors slow the reuptake of serotonin specifically, leaving more serotonin available for use at any given moment. This is believed to work for neuropathy because serotonin plays a key role in pain processing.

SSRIs generally cause fewer unpleasant side effects than tricyclics. However, studies suggest they have relatively small effects on neuropathic pain, so they're not used as often as tricyclics and SNRIs. SSRIs that are sometimes used for nerve pain are:

  • Luvox (fluvoxamine): Used off-label for diabetic neuropathy
  • Prozac (fluoxetine): Used off-label for fibromyalgia and migraine

SSRI Side Effects

Side effects of SSRIs include:

  • Agitation/anxiety
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Exhaustion
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Reduced libido or inability to orgasm
  • Tremors

Check the packaging information that came with your prescription for the side effects of the specific drug you're taking.

SNRIs

Serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors slow the reuptake of both neurotransmitters, helping the brain process pain signals. This class includes the only antidepressants to receive FDA approval for pain.

  • Cymbalta (duloxetine): FDA approved for fibromyalgia and diabetic neuropathy
  • Savella (milnacipran): FDA approved for fibromyalgia
  • Venlafaxine: Used off-label for fibromyalgia, diabetic neuropathy, and migraine

A Note on Savella

This drug is an SNRI and is marketed in many countries as an antidepressant. However, in the U.S. it is only approved for fibromyalgia, not for depression, so it isn't considered an antidepressant.

SNRI Side Effects

General side effects of SNRIs are:

  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Excessive sweating
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Reduced libido or inability to orgasm

Because side effects are somewhat different from one drug to the next, be sure you're familiar with the full list of side effects for the one you're prescribed.

Opioids

Opioids, also called opiates or narcotics, are powerful painkillers that are available by prescription only. They're also addictive and classified as controlled substances. Because of an epidemic of recreational opioid abuse and overdose, many healthcare providers limit the use of opioids and require pain contracts, pill counts, and other measures meant to prevent addiction and abuse.

Opioids work by blocking pain signals that the body sends to the brain, so the brain doesn't receive the signals or perceive the pain. They're commonly used for injuries, cancer pain, and post-surgical pain.

When it comes to neuropathic pain, opioids are generally considered a last line of treatment and prescribed only when all adjuvant painkillers fail. Opioids in use include:

Side Effects and Warnings

Opioids are addictive. You should take the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible amount of time. The use of opioids for treating chronic pain is controversial. Common side effects of drugs in this class include:

  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Euphoria
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sleepiness

Opioid Overdose Symptoms

Signs of opioid overdose, which can be fatal, include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Extremely small pupils
  • Slow and shallow breathing
  • Choking or gurgling sounds
  • Going limp
  • Skin that's pale, blue, or cold

Call 911 immediately if you suspect someone is having an opioid overdose.

Over time, you can build up a tolerance to opioids, meaning you'll need more of the drug to achieve the same level of pain control. This can put you at risk of both overdose and addiction.

Acetaminophen

Different from other painkillers, acetaminophen (the drug in Tylenol) works by increasing your pain threshold, which is the point at which a sensation registers as painful. Acetaminophen is commonly used alongside other pain relievers because it doesn't interact negatively with them. That makes it a common go-to for breakthrough pain (pain that persists despite treatment).

Side Effects and Warnings

Some opioids, including Vicodin and Percocet, are combination drugs, meaning the narcotic medication is combined with acetaminophen. Many OTC drug formulations contain acetaminophen as well, including a lot of cold and flu remedies. Taking too much acetaminophen can lead to liver toxicity, which can be fatal.

If you take a combination opioid, check the labels of everything you take to make sure you don't get too much acetaminophen. When increasing your dosage, talk to your healthcare provider about whether a combination drug is still the best option for you.

Don't Double Up!

Acetaminophen liver toxicity is a real threat when taking combination opioids. This can be due to needing increasingly larger doses due to a tolerance to opioids, or because of accidentally combining these drugs with one or more of the hundreds of over-the-counter (OTC) products that contain acetaminophen.

Acetaminophen generally causes minimal side effects. The most common ones are:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache

NSAIDs

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs typically are not very effective at treating neuropathic pain unless inflammation is contributing to symptoms. These common painkillers are available OTC and by prescription, and they're a common add-on to other drugs for treating breakthrough pain from neuropathy.

Common OTC NSAIDs include:

Both ibuprofen and naproxen are also available in prescription strengths. Some NSAIDs that are only available by prescription are:

Side Effects and Warnings

NSAIDs can be hard on your liver. Your healthcare provider may monitor your liver function if you're on an NSAID long-term.

Common side effects of NSAIDs are:

  • Stomach pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness

Less common side effects, which may warrant immediate medical attention, include:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart failure related to fluid retention
  • Kidney problems, including failure
  • Liver problems, including failure
  • Bleeding intestinal and stomach ulcers
  • Anemia (low red blood cells)
  • Skin reactions, which can be life-threatening
  • Allergic reactions, which can be life-threatening
  • Asthma attacks (only in people with pre-existing asthma)

Topical Analgesics

Some people with neuropathic pain find relief with topical pain medications, which are applied to the skin in the form of creams, gels, and patches and come OTC or by prescription. A real benefit of topical analgesics is that they work directly on the site of your pain and can be safely combined with other medications.

Topical medications are absorbed through your skin and enter the bloodstream. However, they're often associated with a lower risk of side effects because they're absorbed in smaller amounts that what you'd take in pill form and they don't travel through your digestive system, where some painkillers can cause damage.

Different types of local analgesics work in different ways, and some are better than others for treating nerve pain.

  • Local anesthetics: These numb the nerves so they no longer send pain signals and work well for many people with neuropathic pain. Examples include lidocaine, benzocaine, tetracaine, and bupivanor.
  • Counter-irritants: These cause new sensations that distract your nerves from sending pain signals and work well for many people with neuropathic pain. Sensations may be cold, hot, or tingling. Examples are capsaicin and methyl salicylate.
  • Topical NSAIDs: These reduce inflammation when absorbed through the skin and are less likely to work for nerve pain unless it is due to inflammation. Example: diclofenac.
  • Menthol products: These cause a cooling sensation that desensitizes your nerve endings and decreases blood flow (like an ice pack would), which may work better for inflammation-related pain than nerve pain. Look for menthol on the label.

Many topical products combine two or more of these ingredients. For example, Icy Hot contains both methyl salicylate and menthol, while Icy Hot with Lidocaine contains lidocaine and menthol.

Popular Topical Analgesics

Lidocaine

Lidocaine is one of the more commonly used topicals, as it's available both OTC and by prescription and in creams, patches, and other forms. Lidocaine is FDA approved for postherpetic neuralgia and peripheral nerve block anesthesia and epidural anesthesia. It's used off-label for diabetic neuropathy.

Lidocaine is available OTC in some Icy Hot and Aspercreme products and by prescription in multiple forms, including patches and films, gels and jellies, lotions, creams, and ointments. Some lidocaine-containing products are:

  • Lidoderm Patch
  • Anastia Topical Lotion
  • Mentho-Caine/Solupak Topical Ointment

The most common side effects of lidocaine include:

  • Red spots on the skin (petechiae)
  • Itching
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Agitation

Capsaicin

Capsaicin, a popular OTC pain reliever, is FDA-approved for postherpetic neuralgia and diabetic neuropathy of the feet. It's available in multiple products and forms, including creams, lotions, and a film. Capsaicin-containing products include:

  • Capzasin-P Topical Cream
  • Zostrix Topical Cream
  • Castiva Warming Topical Lotion
  • Qutenza Topical Film

Common capsaicin side effects include:

  • Rash
  • Itching
  • Nausea
  • Infection
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Cough
  • Throat irritation
  • Dizziness

The burning sensation that makes capsaicin work may be too intense for some people to tolerate.

Menthol

You can find menthol in a wide variety of topical products including:

Menthol is available as a cream, gel, liquid, powder, spray, foam, film, and pad. Side effects are uncommon with menthol. If you get it in your eyes, be sure to thoroughly rinse it out. Stop using the product and get medical attention if you experience:

  • Severe burning, stinging, redness, or irritation
  • Pain, swelling, or blistering where it was applied
  • Hives, difficulty breathing, or swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat

To avoid burns, don't use menthol products with a heating pad.

Warning: Topical Analgesics

It is possible for topical analgesics to cause overdose and even death. Don't combine oral and topical forms of the same drug, don't use topical products over large portions of your body, and don't cover topical analgesics with a bandage or plastic wrap unless directed to by a healthcare provider. These things can all cause your body to absorb too much of the drug.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I treat nerve pain at home?

Yes, you can treat nerve pain at home with OTC medications and topical analgesics. You may also find that rest, stress reduction, and other lifestyle changes help. However, most people with neuropathic pain require help from a healthcare provider or medical team to make significant improvements, and you should involve your healthcare provider in any self-treatment decisions and lifestyle modifications.

A Word From Verywell

It's common to end up taking more than one medication to treat nerve pain, and that can potentially lead to negative interactions. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider and pharmacist before adding any over-the-counter drugs, supplements, or herbal products to your treatment regimen. It's also a good idea to have your pharmacist review your medications anytime you're prescribed something new.

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