Na+ channels are large transmembrane proteins with a voltage-gated central pore capable of selectively passing Na+ ions. They are critical determinants of the electrical excitability of sensory neurons and play a key role in pain sensation by controlling afferent impulse discharge. Injury and disease affecting peripheral nerves induces axonopathy and demyelination. These neuropathic changes, in turn, trigger membrane remodeling in injured afferents and perhaps also in uninjured neighbors. A major consequence of the remodeling is increased cellular excitability. This is due in large part to subtype-selective abnormalities in the expression and trafficking of Na+ channels and perhaps also to altered kinetic properties of unitary channels. Hyperexcitable neurons show enhanced membrane resonance, rhythmogenesis, and ectopic spiking. The resulting excess discharge constitutes a primary neuropathic pain signal. In addition, it triggers and maintains central sensitization. This amplifies residual afferent input, yielding tactile allodynia, and it also amplifies ongoing ectopia that exaggerates spontaneous pain. Membrane-stabilizing Na+ channel ligands suppress neuropathic pain by selectively reducing membrane resonance in injured afferents and hence ectopic hyperexcitability. The clinical usefulness of these peripherally acting drugs might be enhanced by reducing their central side effects.
Perspective: Neuropathic pain is a complex outcome of multiple pathophysiological changes that develop in the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the central nervous system (CNS) following nerve injury or disease. All or most of the CNS changes are thought to be due to abnormal signaling from the PNS, notably electrical hyperexcitability of peripheral sensory neurons. Because hyperexcitability is associated with abnormal sodium channel regulation, this process is a prime target for therapeutic intervention.