Postherpetic neuralgia: irritable nociceptors and deafferentation

Neurobiol Dis. 1998 Oct;5(4):209-27. doi: 10.1006/nbdi.1998.0204.


Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is a common and often devastatingly painful condition. It is also one of the most extensively investigated of the neuropathic pains. Patients with PHN have been studied using quantitative testing of primary afferent function, skin biopsies, and controlled treatment trials. Together with insights drawn from an extensive and growing literature on experimental models of neuropathic pain these patient studies have provided a preliminary glimpse of the pain-generating mechanisms in PHN. It is clear that both peripheral and central pathophysiological mechanisms contribute to PHN pain. Some PHN patients have abnormal sensitization of unmyelinated cutaneous nociceptors (irritable nociceptors). Such patients characteristically have minimal sensory loss. Other patients have pain associated with small fiber deafferentation. In such patients pain and temperature sensation are profoundly impaired but light moving mechanical stimuli can often produce severe pain (allodynia). In these patients, allodynia may be due to the formation of new connections between nonnociceptive large diameter primary afferents and central pain transmission neurons. Other deafferentation patients have severe spontaneous pain without hyperalgesia or allodynia and presumably have lost both large and small diameter fibers. In this group the pain is likely due to increased spontaneous activity in deafferented central neurons and/or reorganization of central connections. These three types of mechanism may coexist in individual patients and each offers the possibility for developing new therapeutic interventions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Herpes Zoster / complications*
  • Humans
  • Neuralgia / etiology
  • Neuralgia / physiopathology*
  • Nociceptors / physiopathology