Chronic pain — pain that recurs frequently or lasts for an extended period of time — develops when the nervous system continues to relay pain signals long after the cause of an injury or illness is treated.
What is Chronic Pain?
While pain often serves a useful function by indicating when something in the body has gone wrong, chronic pain is a serious condition that persists after its initial cause is dealt with. There are two primary types of pain: acute (short term) and chronic (long term). Acute pain refers to sudden pain that even if severe is temporary and generally has a direct explanation such as bodily harm. Chronic pain lasts for an extended period of time, can stem from multiple complicated factors and is considered a health condition.
At least 100 million adults in the United States experience some form of chronic pain. Pain that constantly reoccurs or lasts for long stretches of time can have both physical and emotional consequences.
Symptoms of Chronic Pain
The most common sources of chronic pain include headaches and lower back pain. Chronic pain also regularly causes the following:
- Trouble sleeping – pain can interfere with regular sleep cycles causing exhaustion and fatigue
- Anxiety & depression – pain often distracts from work, makes social interactions challenging and puts strain on relationships
- Reduced appetite – reduced desire for food is a common mark of chronic pain
- Diminished range of motion – chronic pain can lead to tense muscles which can interfere with common body movements
Causes of Chronic Pain
Many different factors can lead to chronic pain including:
- Nerve damage – if an injury is traumatic enough it can permanently damage nerves that then miscommunicate with the brain and spinal cord
- Disease – common culprits are stomach ulcers, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and cancer
- Unhealed injuries – injuries that fail to heal properly can transition from acute to chronic pain
- Degenerative changes – normal aging of the spine can sometimes lead to chronic pain
- Congenital conditions – spine curvature disorders such as scoliosis often cause long-term discomfort
- Obesity – excess weight puts pressure on joints and bones that often contributes to chronic pain
Chronic pain can also result from commonly repeated actions such as sleeping on a deficient mattress, wearing high heels, improperly lifting objects or poor posture. In rare cases, people can suffer from chronic pain without ever encountering bodily harm or being sick in the first place.
How is Chronic Pain Diagnosed?
Chronic pain can usually be self-diagnosed since imaging or laboratory tests are seldom required. However, individuals should seek advice from medical professionals in formulating a treatment plan or to receive a physical exam if the cause of the pain is unknown.
Treatment of Chronic Pain
While treatment can help, there is no cure for chronic pain. The symptoms can be managed through a combination of:
- Medication – NSAIDs (Advil, Aleve), acetaminophen (Tylenol) and COX-2 inhibitors (Celebrex) can all help relieve chronic pain
- Therapy – various types of counseling including cognitive behavioral therapy and psychotherapy have proven successful
- Exercise – aerobic activity that avoids the area in direct pain can improve cardiovascular health and help maintain physical functions
- Surgery – though usually considered a last resort, it is possible to receive an implanted pain control system or undergo nerve decompression surgery
- Alternative treatments – some medical professionals might recommend acupuncture, massage, dietary modification, yoga or meditation
Each treatment plan should be uniquely geared toward the individual case of chronic pain and can depend on how long the pain has lasted, intensity, what has been successful in providing relief, and what is believed to be the cause or causes.