How you experience pain is actually a very involved process. Pain is basically your body’s warning system. Pain is telling you that something is wrong. When something hurts, it is usually because some damage (or potential damage) is being done to your tissues. Special cells in your nervous system called “neurons” transmit pain signals when you suffer an injury or your tissues are damaged. These neurons are found throughout your skin and other body tissues.
Some kinds of pain you understand and accept. When a sharp knife accidentally cuts your finger, neurons in your skin release chemical signals that travel to nerves in the spinal cord and then on to your brain. The brain then interprets the signals as pain. Most likely you are grateful when your body tells you that a knife is sharp and that you have cut yourself. You can stop what you are doing and attend to the wound and try to avoid cutting yourself the next time you use the knife.
However, when you experience discomfort after something like surgery, and neurons send signals to your brain to tell you that you are feeling pain, it’s a whole different story. Pain post-surgery can be debilitating and there is no quick fix for treating it. The condition actually has a name and it’s called “postsurgical neuropathy.” Medical experts have previously thought post-op pain to be the result of compression or stretching of nerves during surgery. But a new U.S. study suggests that, in some patients, neuropathy is the result of the immune system attacking the nerves, leading to inflammation.
Researchers at the famed Mayo Clinic studied 23 patients who developed neuropathy within 30 days of undergoing surgery. These patients were selected because their neuropathy didn’t appear to be caused by compression or stretching of the nerves. When biopsies were conducted, the researchers found increased inflammation in 21 of the patients. Seventeen of these received three months of immunotherapy, after which all showed improvements in their neuropathy symptoms.
The Mayo Clinic team said the results prove that there needs to be a greater understanding of the role of inflammation in patients’ neuropathy, which will hopefully lead to appropriate treatments that target the immune system.
Many patients believe that a surgeon is to blame when they develop a neuropathy after surgery. Now, it seems, in some cases, the neuropathies are not the surgeon’s fault, but are caused by the immune system attacking the nerves. In these cases, immune-suppressing drugs may prove the best way to reduce symptoms.