After-shingles pain: Significant impact on elderly

Published On: Jun 04 2012 10:50:38 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 19 2012 11:22:30 AM CDT

(NewsUSA) - JoAnn Jones (name changed to protect patient privacy) first noticed the pain in her upper right shoulder and back. She initially went to her chiropractor, thinking it was related to lower back pain, but as the pain grew over the next five days, she knew it was something more serious. When she awoke the fifth morning with a rash covering parts of her body, her doctor immediately put her on an antiviral medication for shingles. The rash eventually faded, but the pain did not.

"It's a devastating illness, a chronic condition that you live with 24-7," explains Jones about her postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), or after-shingles pain.

Ms. Jones is not alone in her struggle. Every year, approximately 1 million Americans develop shingles, or herpes zoster. Distinguishable by a rash and blisters that most commonly occur on the torso -- chest and back -- waistline, upper arms or side of the face, shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox, the varicella-zoster virus.

One-in-five people diagnosed with shingles suffer complications resulting in PHN, or after-shingles pain resulting from nerve damage caused by the virus. PHN pain, which may last for months or sometimes even years, can be devastating to those it affects.

"PHN pain can erode a person's quality of life, especially for elderly patients," says Dr. Christopher Gharibo, director of Pain Medicine and assistant professor of Anesthesiology at NYU School of Medicine, "The pain can make everyday activities, like bathing or dressing, excruciating. Chronic pain often leads to serious depression. In fact, PHN is the most common cause of pain-related suicide in the elderly."

PHN disproportionately affects the 50-and-over population and people with weakened immune systems. In fact, shingles patients age 50 or older have a more than 50 percent chance of developing PHN, and patients age 80 or older have an 80 percent chance of developing the condition.

Ms. Jones urges, "If you are over 50 and have unexplained pain, ask your doctor if it might be from shingles." Early treatment for shingles could lessen or prevent the duration of shingles and lower the risk for PHN.

If you think you or someone you know might be suffering from shingles or PHN, talk to your doctor immediately.

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