Living With Shingles Pain
March 26, 2012
The pain associated with shingles can range from mild to severe and, in some cases, may persist for months after the rash heals. Fortunately, there are several treatment options to ease your discomfort.
Every year in the United States, more than 1 million people are newly diagnosed with shingles. The condition is typically marked by a blistering rash, but many people experience other symptoms first. Pain is often one of the earliest signs of shingles — you may feel it even before the rash appears and, in some cases, for months or years after the rash is gone. The good news is that there are treatments available that can help relieve this pain, and even shorten the duration of your shingles infection.
What Shingles Pain Feels Like
Individuals feel shingles pain in different ways. The pain associated with the shingles rash has been described as burning, itching, stinging, or tingling. In its milder form, shingles pain is more itchy than painful, and when it’s severe, shingles pain can be triggered by the brush of a bed sheet or a gentle breeze on the skin.
In most cases, shingles pain subsides when your rash heals, which usually takes a few weeks. But about 20 percent of people with shingles experience a complication known as postherpetic neuralgia, in which mild to severe pain can stay around for months after the shingles rash has cleared. In severe cases of postherpetic neuralgia, the pain can be debilitating and result in insomnia, weight loss, and depressive symptoms.
Treatment and Management of Shingles Pain
When you’re diagnosed with shingles, your doctor can prescribe antiviral medications such as Zovirax (acyclovir), Valtrex (valacyclovir), and Famvir (famciclovir), which can shorten the severity and duration of your illness, and cause your pain to abate sooner. Early diagnosis of shingles is critical, because antiviral medications work best when they’re started within the first three days after a shingles rash develops.
In addition to antiviral medications, your doctor may recommend the following to help reduce your shingles pain:
- Steroids. Steroid medications can help relieve your shingles pain and reduce your risk of developing postherpetic neuralgia.
- Over-the-counter pain medication. You can use pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and others) or ibuprofen (Motrin and others) to help manage your shingles pain.
- Prescription pain medication. In cases of severe shingles pain, your doctor may prescribe pain medicine to help reduce your pain.
- Medicated lotions. Lotions designed to soothe the skin and reduce itching may be able to help with shingles pain, too.
- Cool compresses. Applying cool compresses to your rash can help ease itching and shingles pain.
If you have postherpetic neuralgia, your doctor may also recommend the following to help ease your pain:
- Capsaicin cream. Using a capsaicin cream (Capsin, Zostrix) can help reduce pain caused by postherpetic neuralgia.
- Lidocaine patch. If you’re still having trouble managing postherpetic neuralgia pain, your doctor may recommend a patch containing lidocaine (Lidoderm) to help manage your pain.
- Antidepressant medications. There is some evidence that tricyclic antidepressants can reduce pain in people with postherpetic neuralgia.
- Anticonvulsant medications. The medication gabapentin (Neurotin or Gabarone) has been shown to be effective in treating the pain caused by postherpetic neuralgia.
- Opioid medications. Opioids such as oxycodone or morphine, which are strong prescription pain medications, have been shown to help manage the pain of postherpetic neuralgia.
- Complementary and alternative pain management. Sometimes, alternative pain management techniques can help people with chronic pain, such as the pain caused by postherpetic neuralgia. These techniques include acupuncture, electrical stimulation, relaxation exercises (meditation, for example), biofeedback, and behavior modification.
If you’re experiencing shingles pain or are still having pain after your shingles rash has healed, talk with your doctor. He or she can discuss the benefits and risks of pain relieving treatment options with you, and help find the right pain relief regimen for you.