Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Persistent pain common after a stroke

Heart Beat

Persistent pain common after a stroke

The most visible signs of a stroke are problems speaking or difficulty moving one side of the body. Persistent pain is an invisible aftereffect that can be equally devastating. For some people, post-stroke pain entails muscle pains and aches, often in the shoulder. Others experience burning, throbbing, shooting, or stabbing pains on the side of the body affected by the stroke. Some lose feeling in the affected body parts and have trouble telling the difference between warm and cold or detecting a light touch. In others, a gentle touch or clothing brushing against the skin can be excruciatingly painful.

To get a handle on the impact of post-stroke pain, Swedish researchers followed almost 300 stroke survivors, checking their health and asking them questions. At four months, 32% said they were experiencing moderate to severe pain. By 16 months, that had dwindled a bit, to 20%. Many reported having constant or near-constant pain, and most of those reporting pain said it interfered with sleep. (This could account for some of the fatigue that is common among stroke survivors.) Half of those interviewed said that drugs and other therapies did little to alleviate their pain. The results were published in the May 2006 Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

Doctors have historically overlooked and undertreated pain. If the tiny number of published studies on post-stroke pain is any indication, that's happening here as well. So if you are in pain after a stroke, speak up and tell your doctor about it. If it is bothering you or interfering with your life and your doctor isn't taking you seriously or working with you to alleviate it, or if your efforts aren't working, ask for a referral to a pain specialist.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »