Postherpetic Neuralgia

  • Shannon Ryan-Cebula MD
  • Hunter Groninger MD

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Background     Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is a syndrome of zoster-associated pain persisting more than 3 months after resolution of an initial herpes zoster (HZ) rash (‘shingles’).

Epidemiology     Inconsistencies in diagnosis and data collection make the incidence of HZ and PHN difficult to estimate (1,2). PHN develops rarely in those under 50 years. However, it occurs in 20% of persons 60 to 65 with HZ and its incidence rises to 30% in persons over 80 years old (1,2). Risk factors for PHN include severe acute shingles-related pain, rash severity (i.e., more than 50 lesions), increasing age, and immunocompromised status (3,4).

Pathophysiology     In acute HZ, reactivation of the virus from the dorsal root ganglia of spinal or cranial nerves causes inflammation and damage to the affected nerve tissue, resulting in acute pain. Subsequently, primary afferent neurons responding to the acute neuronal damage of zoster reactivation can cause sensitization of the nociceptive dorsal horn neurons, resulting in a prolonged exaggerated response to non-noxious stimuli (1). This central sensitization is thought to be a key mechanism in the development and maintenance of the pain of PHN. 

Natural History     Most HZ patients experience resolution of the rash and acute HZ pain within two months (1). For those who develop PHN, prolonged severe disabling symptoms rarely remain beyond 6 months (5). A small subset may experience irreversible damage to skin and sensory abnormalities that can result in ongoing pain for years (2). For all patients with acute HZ and/or PHN, physical and emotional quality-of-life can be affected (6-8).

Prevention     In adults over 60 years old, live vaccination against the zoster virus reduces overall incidence of HZ by 50% and PHN by two-thirds.  It is contraindicated in patients with immune deficiencies (primary or acquired such as patients with leukemia), including patients taking immunosuppressants or high dose corticosteroids (9). Initiating antiviral drugs within 72 hours of rash onset reduces acute and chronic pain associated with HZ. There is no clear benefit to initiation after this window (10-12). Best available evidence does not support the routine use of glucocorticoids in preventing PHN (10).

Pain management strategies     PHN is a quintessential neuropathic pain syndrome and the approach to treatment is similar to other neuropathic syndromes. Recent guidelines cite strong evidence for using tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), gabapentinoids (gabapentin, pregabalin), opioids, lidocaine 5% patch, and capsaicin 8% patch to manage PHN (13,14). (See Fast Facts #49, 148, 255, and 271.) Strong evidence also supports combined therapy of gabapentin plus opioids or TCAs (14). Second-line therapies include topical salicylate and topical capsaicin 0.075% cream. Epidural steroid injections and acupuncture are likely no better than placebo (14). While serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors such as duloxetine are commonly used for neuropathic syndromes (see Fast Fact #187), there are currently no published trials regarding their use for PHN.

Cost    There is limited literature regarding cost effectiveness among commonly used agents. The following table provides current information regarding starting dose, effective dose, and cost (15).


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  3. Nagasako EM, Johnson RW, Griffin DR, Dworkin RH.  Rash severity in herpes zoster: correlates and relationship to postherpetic neuralgia.  J Am Acad Dermatol. 2002; 46(6):834.
  4. Jung BF, Johnson RW, Griffin DR, Dworkin RH. Risk factors for postherpetic neuralgia in patients with herpes zoster.  Neurol. 2004; 62(9):1545-51.
  5. Thyregod HG, et al.  Natural history of pain following herpes zoster. Pain. 2007; 128:148-156.
  6. Johnson RW, Bouhassira D, et al. The impact of herpes zoster and post-herpetic neuralgia on quality of life.  BMC Med. 2010; 8:37.
  7. Weinke T, Edte A, et al.  Impact of herpes zoster and post-herpetic neuralgia on patients’ quality of life: a patient-reported outcomes survey. Z Gesundh Wiss. 2010; 18(4):367-374.
  8. Drolet M, Brisson M, Schmader KE, et al. The impact of herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia on health related quality of life: a prospective study.  CMAJ. 2010; 182(16):1731-6.
  9. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Herpes Zoster Vaccination for Health Care Professionals. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/shingles/hcp-vaccination.htm. Accessed March 6, 2013.
  10. Thakur R, Philip AG.  Treating herpes zoster and post herpetic neuralgia: an evidence based approach. J Fam Pract. 2012; 61(9 Suppl):S9-15.
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  12. Tyring S, Barbarash RA, Nahlik JE, et al. Famciclovir for the treatment of acute herpes zoster: effects on acute disease and postherpetic neuralgia. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Ann Intern Med. 1995; 123:89-96.
  13. Attal N, Cruccu G, et al.  EFNS guidelines on the pharmacological treatment of neuropathic pain: 2010 revision.  Eur J Neurol. 2010; 17:1113-1123.
  14. Dubinsky RM, Kabbani H, El-Chami Z, Boutwell C, Ali H.  An evidence based report of the quality standards subcommitee of the American Academy of Neurology.  Neurol. 2004; 63:959-965.
  15. Drugstore.com Online Pharmacy. Available at http://www.drugstore.com. Accessed February 22, 2013.

Authors’ Affiliations:  National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, Bethesda, MD.

Conflicts of Interest Disclosure: The authors have not disclosed any relevant conflicts of interest.

Version History:  First published September 2013. Re-copy-edited by Sean Marks in September 2015.