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Nat Rev Neurol. 2013 Oct;9(10):572-82. doi: 10.1038/nrneurol.2013.180. Epub 2013 Sep 10.

Reappraising neuropathic pain in humans--how symptoms help disclose mechanisms.

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Department of Neurology and Psychiatry, Sapienza University, Viale Università 30, 00185 Rome, Italy.


Neuropathic pain--that is, pain arising directly from a lesion or disease that affects the somatosensory system--is a common clinical problem, and typically causes patients intense distress. Patients with neuropathic pain have sensory abnormalities on clinical examination and experience pain of diverse types, some spontaneous and others provoked. Spontaneous pain typically manifests as ongoing burning pain or paroxysmal electric shock-like sensations. Provoked pain includes pain induced by various stimuli or even gentle brushing (dynamic mechanical allodynia). Recent clinical and neurophysiological studies suggest that the various pain types arise through distinct pathophysiological mechanisms. Ongoing burning pain primarily reflects spontaneous hyperactivity in nociceptive-fibre pathways, originating from 'irritable' nociceptors, regenerating nerve sprouts or denervated central neurons. Paroxysmal sensations can be caused by several mechanisms; for example, electric shock-like sensations probably arise from high-frequency bursts generated in demyelinated non-nociceptive Aβ fibres. Most human and animal findings suggest that brush-evoked allodynia originates from Aβ fibres projecting onto previously sensitized nociceptive neurons in the dorsal horn, with additional contributions from plastic changes in the brainstem and thalamus. Here, we propose that the emerging mechanism-based approach to the study of neuropathic pain might aid the tailoring of therapy to the individual patient, and could be useful for drug development.

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