Treating post-herpetic neuralgia  

The pain associated with post-herpetic neuralgia can often be reduced with medication, although some simple self-help measures can also be useful.

Self-help

If you have post-herpetic neuralgia, you can try a number of things that may help reduce the painful symptoms of the condition.

Some measures you can take to reduce pain are described below.

  • wear comfortable clothing – clothes that are too tight or made of rough or synthetic material may irritate your skin and make your symptoms worse; wearing cotton or silk clothing will usually cause less irritation
  • cover sensitive areas – you may find some areas of your skin are more affected by post-herpetic neuralgia than others; if your clothes tend to rub in certain areas, try covering them with a plastic wound dressing or cling film
  • use cold packs – unless your post-herpetic neuralgia is made worse by cold, you could try using gel-filled cold packs to numb the pain: simply place the pack in the freezer to cool it down before placing it gently against your skin

Medication

If your pain is severe, you are likely to need medication prescribed by your GP to help control it.

These medications may not necessarily completely eliminate the pain, but they can help reduce it. They are also not all suitable or effective for everyone, so you may need to try a number of different medications to find the one – or combination – that works best for you.

The nerve pain associated with post-herpetic neuralgia doesn't usually respond to standard painkillers, although your GP may sometimes suggest using paracetamol or a combination of paracetamol and codeine initially to see if it has an effect.

If these are not effective, alternative medications may be needed. These will often be medications originally intended to treat depression (antidepressants) or epilepsy (anticonvulsants), but have since been found to be effective in relieving nerve pain because they "damp down" nerve impulses.

While you are using these medications, your progress will be regularly reviewed to assess how effectively they are working and whether you are experiencing any side effects.

Depending on the outcome of your reviews, your medication may be changed or the dosage may be altered. If the medications your GP can prescribe do not help, you may need to be referred to a pain specialist for further treatment.

Some of the main medications used to treat post-herpetic neuralgia are outlined below.

Antidepressants

Amitriptyline and duloxetine are the two main antidepressants that can be prescribed by your GP to treat post-herpetic neuralgia.

Doses of these medications will usually start low and build up over a few weeks, depending on the benefits and side effects. It may take a few weeks to feel the full effects.

Common side effects of these medications include dry mouth, constipation, dizziness and drowsiness. Because of the dizziness and drowsiness that can be caused by these medications, you may be advised not to drive until you are on a stable dose that does not cause this side effect.

If these medications are still not effective in controlling your pain after you have been taking them for several weeks, or they are causing significant side effects, your dose will need to be gradually reduced over one week or more to prevent withdrawal effects.

Anticonvulsants

Gabapentin and pregabalin are the two main anticonvulsants that can be prescribed by your GP to treat post-herpetic neuralgia.

Like the antidepressants mentioned above, these should be started at a low dose, with the dose gradually increased over a few days or weeks. They also usually need to be taken for a few weeks until they start to take effect.

Common side effects of gabapentin and pregabalin include dizziness, drowsiness, poor memory, increased appetite and weight gain. Do not drive or operate heavy machinery if you experience dizziness or drowsiness after taking these medications.

If they are still not effective in controlling your pain after you have been taking them for several weeks, or they are causing significant side effects, the dose of these medications will need to be gradually reduced over one week or more.

Topical treatments

In some cases, pain-relieving medication that is applied directly to the painful area (topical treatments) may be suitable.

There are two main types of topical treatment used for post-herpetic neuralgia – capsaicin cream and lidocaine plasters.

Capsaicin cream

Capsaicin is the substance that makes chilli peppers hot and is thought to work in nerve pain by stopping the nerves sending pain messages to the brain.

A pea-sized amount of capsaicin cream is rubbed on the painful area of skin three or four times a day.

Side effects of capsaicin cream can include skin irritation and a burning sensation in the treated area when you first start treatment.

Do not use capsaicin cream on broken or inflamed skin and always wash your hands after applying it.

Lidocaine plaster

This is a large sticking plaster that contains a local anaesthetic. It may be useful when pain affects only a small area of skin.

It is stuck over the area of painful skin and the local anaesthetic is absorbed into the skin that is covered.

Other medications

If the medications prescribed by your GP are not effective in managing your pain, you may be referred to a specialist pain clinic to help manage your pain.

While you are waiting to be referred to a pain clinic, you may be prescribed a medication called tramadol. This belongs to a group of medicines called opioids. It is an effective painkiller that can help reduce neuropathic pain.

Common side effects of tramadol can include feeling sick, vomiting, dizziness and constipation. Like all opioids, tramadol can also be addictive if taken over long periods of time, so it should be prescribed for the shortest time possible.

Specialists in a pain clinic may recommend taking other, stronger, types of opioids such as morphine or oxycodone if the medications listed above have not helped. These will initially be prescribed by your specialist, although your GP can continue to prescribe them thereafter.

Page last reviewed: 12/08/2014

Next review due: 01/06/2017