Heterogenous Patterns of Sensory Dysfunction in Postherpetic Neuralgia Suggest Multiple Pathophysiologic Mechanisms

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Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is considered by some investigators to be predominantly a deafferentation-type central pain syndrome; others suggest that activity of remaining peripheral nociceptors plays a critical role. The authors investigated the sensory dysfunction in subjects with PHN of varying duration and at different sites to gain further insight into the mechanisms responsible for the clinical features of neuropathic pain. In addition, the relationships between ongoing pain and pain evoked by mechanical and thermal stimuli were compared in patients with trigeminal and truncal PHN, to determine if the pathophysiologic mechanisms differed among subjects.


In 63 subjects with PHN, quantitative sensory testing was performed in the region of maximum allodynia or ongoing pain and the corresponding contralateral site. The intensity of ongoing pain was recorded. Sensory thresholds for warmth, coolness, heat pain, and cold pain were determined. Pain induced by various mechanical stimuli (dynamic, static, punctate) was rated using a numerical rating scale of 0–10.


The mean rating of ongoing PHN pain was 7.3 ± 2.0 (mean ± SD). Allodynia induced by one or more mechanical stimuli was observed in 78% of subjects. A smaller subset (40%) had hyperalgesia to heat or cold stimuli. In subjects with duration of PHN of ≤ 1 yr duration, but not in those with duration of > 1 yr, the intensity of ongoing pain correlated with intensity of allodynia induced by dynamic stimuli. Deficits in thresholds for heat and cold pain were observed in the affected region of subjects with PHN in the thoracic dermatomes (P < 0.005), but not in the trigeminal distribution. No relationship was observed between the thermal deficits and ongoing pain or mechanical allodynia in the groups of subjects with either trigeminal or thoracic PHN.


Despite a common cause, the patterns of sensory abnormalities differ between subjects. Particular differences were noted between groups with facial or truncal PHN and between groups with recent or more chronic PHN. The observations suggest that the relative contributions of peripheral and central mechanisms to the pathophysiology of pain differ among subjects and may vary over the course of PHN.

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