, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 1-19
Date: 01 Sep 2012

Post-Herpetic Neuralgia in Older Adults

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Abstract

Many individuals across the globe have been exposed to the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) that causes chickenpox. After chickenpox has resolved, the virus remains latent in the dorsal root ganglia where it can re-emerge later in life as herpes zoster, otherwise known as shingles. Herpes zoster is a transient disease characterised by a dermatomal rash that is usually associated with significant pain. Post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) is the term used for the condition that exists if the pain persists after the rash has resolved. Advanced age and compromised cell-mediated immunity are significant risk factors for reactivation of herpes zoster and the subsequent development of PHN. Though the pathophysiology of PHN is unclear, studies suggest peripheral and central demyelination as well as neuronal destruction are involved.

Both the vaccine against VZV (Varivax®) and the newly released vaccine against herpes zoster (Zostavax®) may lead to substantial reductions in morbidity from herpes zoster and PHN. In addition, current evidence suggests that multiple medications are effective in reducing the pain associated with PHN. These include tricyclic antidepressants, antiepileptics, Opioids, NMDA receptor antagonists as well as topical lidocaine (lignocaine) and capsaicin. Reasonable evidence supports the use of intrathecal corticosteroids, but the potential for neurological sequelae should prompt caution with their application. Epidural corticosteroids have not been shown to provide effective analgesia for PHN. Sympathetic blockade may assist in treating the pain of herpes zoster or PHN. For intractable PHN pain, practitioners have performed delicate surgeries and attempted novel therapies. Although such therapies may help reduce pain, they have been associated with disappointing results, with up to 50% of patients failing to receive acceptable pain relief. Hence, it is likely that the most effective future treatment for this disease will focus on prevention of VZV infection and immunisation against herpes zoster infection with a novel vaccine.