Many women report nerve-related persistent pain after breast surgery

Originally published in Insidermedicine

Nearly half of women who undergo surgery and other treatments for breast cancer report having persistent pain in and around the treatment area a year or more later, probably because of nerve damage, according to research published in the November 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Here is some information about neuropathic, or nerve, pain:

• It is a type of pain that occurs when a nerve is injured and begins sending incorrect messages to the brain
• It can feel like numbness, tingling, pins and needles, burning, stabbing, electric shocks, or just be very difficult to describe
• There are pain medications specifically designed to treat this type of pain

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark sent questionnaires regarding persistent pain to nearly 4,000 women who underwent treatment, including surgery and possibly chemotherapy or radiation, for breast cancer in 2005.

Overall, 87% of the women responded to the questionnaire. Among the respondents, 47% reported having persistent pain an average of 26 months after their treatment. Nearly half had light pain only, but about 40% had moderate pain, and as many as 13% had severe pain. Overall, 20% of the women with pain had consulted a physician regarding the problem in the previous three months. Younger women, especially those who had undergone breast-conserving surgery rather than full breast removal, as well as women who underwent radiation therapy were more likely to report having pain. Younger women were also more likely to report having sensory disturbances in and around the treatment site.

Today’s research highlights the problem of persistent pain following treatment for breast cancer, which is likely due to damage that occurs to the nerves during treatment. This study demonstrates a need to more fully explore treatment techniques that protect the nerves.