Pain after Spinal Cord Injury

Authors: SCIRE Community Team | Reviewed by: Patricia Mills, MHSc, MD, FRCPC | Last updated: Oct 18, 2017

This page provides information about pain and outlines common treatments for pain after spinal cord injury (SCI).

Key Points

• Pain is a common health concern after spinal cord injury (SCI).

• Pain can come from any part of the body, including the muscles, joints, organs, skin, and nerves.

• Nerve pain from an SCI is called neuropathic pain, and is a common cause of chronic pain after SCI.

• There are a wide range of treatments for pain, including mind-body treatments, physical treatments, medications, and surgeries.

• Managing pain after SCI can be challenging. You may need to try several strategies before you find what works best for you.

Pain is very common after SCI. Everyone experiences some form of pain after SCI and many people experience pain that is long-lasting and severe.

Pain can be very distressing and can get in the way of work, staying healthy, mood, and sleep. Because of this, pain is often considered to be the most challenging health problem to manage after SCI.

Pain after SCI can arise from any part of the body, but it is often nerve pain from the injury to the spinal cord itself that causes the most severe and troubling pain after SCI.

Muscle, joint, and bone pain

Pain from the muscles, joints, and bones is called musculoskeletal pain. This type of pain is felt in areas where there is normal sensation, such as above the level of SCI in an individual who has a complete injury, and also below the level of SCI in an individual with an incomplete injury and preservation of sensation below the level of injury. Musculoskeletal pain may feel ‘dull’, ‘achy’, or ‘sharp’ and usually happens during certain movements or positions. After SCI, musculoskeletal pain often comes from shoulder and wrist injuries, neck and back strain, or muscle spasms.

Internal organ pain

Pain from the internal organs (like the stomach, bladder, or heart) is called visceral pain (pronounced ‘VISS-err-el’). This type of pain can also be felt after SCI from areas with normal sensation. Visceral pain is usually felt in the abdomen, pelvis, or back but it is often hard to pinpoint exactly where it is coming from. This type of pain often feels ‘dull’, ‘tender’, or like ‘cramping’. Visceral pain is often caused by problems like constipation, bladder overfilling, or bladder infections.

Nerve pain (Neuropathic pain)

Pain from the nerves is called neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain can be felt anywhere in the body, including below the level of SCI, even when there is no other feeling in the area. Neuropathic pain often has unique and unusual qualities compared to other types of pain:

  • It may feel like it is ‘hot’, ‘burning’, ‘tingling’, ‘pricking’, ‘sharp’, ‘shooting’, ‘squeezing’, or like ‘painful cold’, ‘pins and needles’, or ‘an electric shock’
  • It may happen spontaneously (‘out of the blue’)
  • It may happen in response to things that do not normally cause pain (like the brush of clothing on the skin)
  • It may be felt in areas far away from where the damaged nerve is (such as pain in the hand from a nerve injury in the neck)

There are three main types of nerve pain after spinal cord injury:

At-level SCI pain is nerve pain felt at or near the level of SCI, usually as a band of pain around the torso or neck, or along the arms or legs.

Below-level SCI pain is nerve pain felt in any area below the SCI (including areas without other sensation).

Other neuropathic pain is nerve pain that is unrelated to the SCI and is felt above the level of the SCI. For example, an injury to nerves outside of the spine like nerve compression at the level of the wrist (i.e., carpal tunnel syndrome).

Three silhouettes of a person's body with a brain and spinal cord. Left image shows the bottom half of the body colored purple. Centre image shows a band around the middle of the body in red. Right image shows all the body above the centre, including the arms in green.

Areas for nerve pain after SCI: below the level of injury (left), at the level of injury (centre), and other neuropathic pain (above the level of injury) (right)


What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain, or persistent pain, is pain that is present for a long time (usually 6 months or more). Chronic pain is very different from pain experienced right after an injury (called acute pain). Long term or unrelieved pain can change how pain is experienced in the nervous system. This can lead to pain that that is very complex and often challenging to treat. Chronic pain requires a very different approach to how it is understood and managed.

Pain happens differently depending on where it comes from in the body.

Pain from the body tissues

Nociceptors are special sensors in the body tissues (like the skin and muscles) that detect possible damage to the body.

When nociceptors are activated, they send signals through the nerves and spinal cord to the brain.

In the brain, these signals are recognized and interpreted together with other nerve signals from the brain and body, resulting in the experience of pain.

Image of a person's body from the shoulder up showing a nerve from the arm to the spinal cord, the spinal cord in the centre of the body connecting to the brain. A blue arrow on the skin is captioned 'nociceptors activated'. Blue arrows move up the nerve towards the spinal cord and up the spinal cord to the brain, captioned 'signal travels through spinal cord'. The arrows reach the brain captioned 'brain interprets the signal as pain'.

Pathway of pain signals from the body tissues

Pain from the nerves

Pain from the nerves is different. When the nerves themselves are injured, there are no nociceptors involved. Instead, the signals about potential damage come from somewhere along the pathway of nerves from the body to brain.

Damage to the nerves (including the spinal cord) can cause signals related to pain to be sent inappropriately, resulting in many of the unique features of neuropathic pain.

Image of a person's body from the shoulder up showing a nerve from the arm to the spinal cord, the spinal cord in the centre of the body connecting to the brain. A blue lightning bolt points at the spinal cord captioned 'damage to spinal cord causes danger signals to be sent'. Blue arrows move up the spinal cord to the brain, captioned 'signal travels through spinal cord'. The arrows reach the brain captioned 'brain interprets the signal as pain'.

Pathway of pain signals from the nerves


Pain can be turned up or down

The pain pathway is complex. Pain signals are not static, but can be turned up or down (or modulated) by other nerve signals from both the body and brain. In other words, the pain experience can change depending on other factors, such as worsening during a urinary tract infection, or improving with distraction during enjoyable activities.

Nerve signals from the body, such as those involved in touch, can alter pain signals. This is like how rubbing the skin over a sore area of the body makes it feel better. Nerve signals from the brain, like those involved in emotions and thoughts, can also affect feelings of pain. For example, fear can make pain worse but feeling calm or even distracted can reduce pain.

This happens because of the many different nerve connections involved in the experience of pain.

Since pain is a personal experience, the only way to measure pain is by asking you about your pain. One of the most common ways of measuring pain is using a simple scale from 0 to 10 (0 is ‘no pain’ and 10 is ‘the worst pain’). There are also a number of questionnaires and other rating scales used to measure pain.

Other common questions about pain may include:

  • Where is the pain located?
  • What does the pain feel like? (Is it sharp, dull, or achy? or like tingling, pins and needles, or burning?)
  • What makes the pain worse or better?
  • How does the pain change throughout the day?
  • How easily is pain provoked and how long does it last once started?
  • How much does the pain interfere with your life?

These questions can help your healthcare team to identify new pains, monitor changes over time, and determine if treatments are working.

There are many different treatment options for pain after SCI, ranging from conventional pain-relieving medications to a number of complementary and alternative practices.

Treatments for pain after SCI may include:

  • Addressing the cause of the pain (such as emptying the bladder or relieving constipation)
  • Psychological and mind-body therapies
  • Personal pain management strategies (such as relaxation and distraction)
  • Physical treatments (such as physical therapy, massage, and heat)
  • Electrical and magnetic treatments (such as TENS)
  • Exercise
  • Medications
  • Surgery
  • Other treatments

Finding the right treatment often involves trial and error to find what works best. It is important to discuss your treatment options with your health providers, including possible side effects and risks, other options, and your personal preferences.

Medications are often the first treatments for managing pain after SCI. Speak with your health providers for detailed information about any medication you are considering taking.

Medications for muscle, joint, and bone pain

Except for spasticity (muscle spasms below the level of SCI), most musculoskeletal pain after SCI is treated with common medications such as over-the-counter pain relievers. Because of this, the research evidence supporting the use of these medications is often based on research done in people without SCI and on expert opinion.

Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) works to reduce pain and fever through mechanisms in the nervous system that are not well understood. Acetaminophen is usually taken by mouth and is a common first treatment for musculoskeletal pain after SCI.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and diclofenac reduce pain and inflammation by affecting chemicals in the inflammatory response. NSAIDs may be taken by mouth, or in some cases, applied to the skin over small areas. NSAIDs can sometimes worsen stomach problems, so they are used as a second-line treatment after SCI.

Corticosteroid injections

Corticosteroids mimic the effects of the hormone cortisol to reduce inflammation. Corticosteroids are injected into painful joints to relieve pain caused by inflammation, on an as-needed basis.

Antispasticity medications

Antispasticity medications such as Baclofen and Botulinum toxin (Botox) may be used to help relax painful muscle spasms caused by spasticity. Medications like Baclofen are usually taken by mouth. Medications can also be injected into the affected muscles (in the case of Botox) or into the spinal canal (in the case of Baclofen, via a pump that is surgically implanted).

Opioids

Opioid medications are a type of narcotic pain medication that binds to opioid receptors in the body, reducing pain messages sent to the brain. Opioids may be used for muscle, joint, and bone pain and sometimes for neuropathic pain after SCI. However, opioids can worsen constipation, induce sleep disordered breathing, and may be linked to dependence when used long-term. Therefore, although they are effective for managing pain in the short term, the goal is usually to get off opioids once the acute pain is controlled and avoid its use for chronic pain management.

Medications for neuropathic pain

Neuropathic pain is treated with different types of medications than musculoskeletal pain. The strongest evidence supports using the anticonvulsants Gabapentin and Pregabalin and the antidepressants Amitriptyline, Nortriptyline, and Desipramine (all the same class of drug) for treating neuropathic pain after SCI. There are also many other medications that need further study for pain after SCI.

Anticonvulsants

Anticonvulsants, originally used for epileptic seizures, are thought to reduce neuropathic pain by calming hyperactive nerve cells in the spinal cord.

Antidepressants

Normally used to treat depression, certain types of antidepressants, for example a class of drugs called tricyclic antidepressants such as Amitriptyline, are also used for neuropathic pain. Antidepressants increase the availability of the chemicals norepinephrine and serotonin in the body that may help to control pain signals in the spinal cord.

Anaesthetic medications

Anaesthetic medications like Lidocaine and Ketamine provide short-term pain relief by blocking the transmission of nerve signals involved in sensation and pain. These may be applied directly to the skin or given by injection, catheter, or intravenous line.

Clonidine

Clonidine is a drug that is normally used for lowering blood pressure. Clonidine may also stimulate parts of the spinal cord that decrease pain signals.

Capsaicin

Capsaicin is a chemical compound found in hot peppers that may reduce pain. Capsaicin reduces the action of a molecule called substance P that transmits pain signals in the body. Capsaicin is applied to the skin to reduce pain in small areas.

Cannabinoid medications

Cannabinoid medications like Nabilone contain chemicals called cannabinoids that are present in cannabis (marijuana). Cannabinoids also occur naturally in the body and play a role in reducing pain signals in the nervous system. Cannabinoid medications may be taken by mouth or inhaled.

Physical treatments like exercise, massage, and electrotherapy may be used as part of physical or occupational therapy sessions or at home. Research evidence suggests that regular exercise, shoulder exercise, acupuncture, and TENS may help reduce some types of pain after SCI. However, many of the other physical treatments have not been studied extensively among people with SCI and we do not know for sure how effective they are.

Regular exercise

Regular exercise, such aerobic exercise, strength training, and exercise programs, can help a person stay healthy, reduce stress, and improve mood, which can help to treat pain.

Exercise for shoulder pain

Exercise is often used to treat pain from shoulder injuries. Shoulder exercise focuses on strengthening, stretching, and improving movement of the shoulder joint.

Massage

Massage is commonly used to help manage muscle pain.

Manual therapy

Hands-on techniques that involve mobilizing the soft tissues and joints to restore movement and reduce pain may be used for musculoskeletal pain. Manipulation techniques (‘thrust’ techniques) are not usually done after SCI because they can increase the risk of broken bones.

Heat

Heat is a common treatment for pain from the muscles and joints. Heat may reduce pain by stimulating sensory pathways that dampen pain signals. Heat should be used cautiously (or not used at all) in areas of reduced sensation or sensitive skin to avoid burns.

Acupuncture and dry needling

Acupuncture is an alternative practice derived from traditional Chinese medicine that involves insertion of needles into specific points on the body. Acupuncture may help to stimulate the release of chemicals in the nervous system that reduce pain.

Dry needling (sometimes called intramuscular stimulation) is a technique for releasing muscle tension by stimulating sensitive points with an acupuncture needle.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is the most common form of electrotherapy used in rehabilitation settings. TENS delivers electrical stimulation through electrodes placed on an area where pain is felt. The electrical stimulation may help to block pain signals in the spinal cord.

Future treatment options

Transcranial electrical stimulation and transcranial magnetic stimulation are treatment options that have been researched extensively but are not regularly available at this time. These treatments are both supported by strong evidence to be effective for treating neuropathic pain after SCI.

Transcranial electrical stimulation

Transcranial electrical stimulation involves electrodes placed on the scalp to deliver electrical stimulation to areas of the brain that may help to reduce pain.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) involves the use of an electromagnetic coil placed over the head to produce magnetic pulses that stimulate areas of the brain to reduce pain.

Psychological and mind-body therapies are used to address the many non-physical contributors to pain. These can range from treatment from a psychologist or physician to a number of complementary therapies. These treatments have an important and often underused role in pain management. Most of the psychological and mind-body therapies have not been studied extensively for pain after SCI and need further study before we know how effective they are.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a psychological therapy that is usually done with a therapist or other health provider. Cognitive behavioural therapy aims to change personal beliefs and coping skills through practices involving thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback involves electrically monitoring bodily functions so the individual can learn to regain voluntary control of this function. Electroencephalography (EEG), a non-invasive technology measuring electrical brain activity, has been used to provide feedback on brain states related to chronic pain.

Visual imagery

Visual imagery techniques guide individuals through a series of images to change perceptions and behaviours related to pain.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis is an alternative treatment for chronic pain.

Other treatments

Other psychological and behavioural treatments for chronic pain after SCI, such as meditation, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques, have not yet been studied. Treatments for substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder may also have an important role in pain management.

Surgery for pain is not common and is usually only considered when other treatments have not worked. The risks of surgery should be discussed carefully with your health team before going forward with any procedure. Research on surgery is challenging to conduct and each case is different so support is often based on weak evidence and expert opinion.

Surgery for the cause of the pain

If the pain has clear physical cause (such as a spinal instability or a torn muscle) surgery to correct the problem may help to reduce pain. This is done on a case-by-case basis depending on the problem.

Spinal cord stimulation (Epidural stimulation)

Spinal cord stimulation involves the surgical placement of electrodes on the spinal cord. The electrodes are connected to a device implanted under the skin that sends small electrical currents to stimulate areas of the spinal cord that interrupt pain signals being sent to the brain.

Dorsal rhizotomy (DREZ procedure)

Dorsal rhizotomy (DREZ procedure) is a surgical procedure where parts of the nerves close to the spinal cord are cut to interrupt pain signals from being sent to the brain. This is a permanent procedure that can be used for management of neuropathic pain after SCI.

Myelotomy

Dorsal longitudinal T-myelotomy is a surgical procedure where a small cut is made down the length of a thoracic spinal cord segment to disrupt nerve signals that cause spasticity and pain.

This page has been adapted from the SCIRE Project “Pain Management” Chapter:

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