Experienced pain for longer than 6 months? It might be time to see your doctor. Here’s everything you need to know about chronic pain, some tips on pain management, and the symptoms to look out for.
Unless you’re an extremely lucky person, the majority of us have all experienced occasional aches and pains in some form, at some stage of our lives. Whether that’s a pounding headache, a twisted ankle or a niggling back twinge.
Pain is actually a clever communication technique and reaction of the nervous system; when an injury occurs, pain signals travel from the injured area up your spinal cord and to your brain. Pain is our body’s way of alerting us that there’s something wrong, and that we need to do something about it.
More often than not, this pain goes away within a few weeks or months, with either physio treatment and/or pain relief management. But if this pain sticks around for longer than expected, you could be dealing with a much more serious issue.
Ever heard the term, “chronic pain”? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is chronic pain?
Chronic pain is ongoing pain that lasts longer than the usual healing time, following an injury or illness — which is generally between 3 to 6 months. If you experience pain for longer than this time frame, you’re suffering from chronic pain. It’s a very common and complex condition, where people can experience pains ranging from mild to severe, and the pain can last from months to years.
Chronic pain is usually defined as ongoing and experienced on most days of the week, as opposed to acute pain, which is sudden, sharp pain that’s temporary (usually as a result of injury) and will generally go away once treated.
What causes chronic pain?
Chronic pain is usually caused by an initial injury, such as a back sprain or pulled muscle, but it can also be caused by surgery, nerve pain, musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or other medical conditions such as cancer, endometriosis, IBS or migraines.
Experts believe that chronic pain develops after nerves become damaged. The nerve damage makes the pain more intense and long lasting. In these cases, treating the underlying injury may not resolve or cure the chronic pain.
This is why it’s such a complex illness; it’s often hard to diagnose and to identify the underlying cause — it can result from damage to body tissue from an acute or chronic condition, or it can be caused by changes in the nerves or nervous system, so the nerves continue to signal pain after the original condition has healed.
Chronic pain can be extremely limiting in terms of your mobility, flexibility, strength, and endurance, so it can really have an impact on your day-to-day tasks and activities.
The pain can last for anything from months to years, depending on the root cause. This can be frustrating for patients — and lead to further health issues, such a depression, anxiety, fatigue and insomnia — as they may have to try a number of different treatments before they start to see successful results.
What are the signs and symptoms to look out for?
One of the most common chronic conditions is lower back pain, although chronic pain can occur in any part of the body. The pain can also feel different depending on the affected areas. You could experience a sharp or dull pain that causes a burning or aching sensation in the affected areas. Or the pain could be steady or intermittent, coming and going without any apparent reason.
It can really take a toll on both your physical and mental health. While the pain is often constant, it can flare up and become more intense with increased stress or activity.
Some symptoms of chronic pain to look out for include:
- joint pain
- tense, sore muscles or aches
- burning or stinging pain
- fatigue and lack of energy
- sleep problems
- changes in appetite
- loss of stamina and flexibility, due to decreased activity
- mood problems, including depression, anxiety, and irritability
Some of the below conditions are also linked to chronic pain syndrome:
- inflammatory bowel disease (IBS)
- nerve pain
- back pain
Even when some of these conditions improve, for certain people the pain can still linger. This type of pain is caused by a miscommunication between the brain and nervous system.
In some cases, chronic pain alters the way the nerves, spinal cord and brain work together. These changes mean that incorrect messages travel from the nerves and spinal cord to the brain. As a result, the brain sometimes reacts as if there is damage or trauma, even when there isn’t, and the person feels pain. So in some cases, chronic pain also can occur without any known triggers, making it a lot trickier to diagnose and treat.
If you are worried you could be suffering with chronic pain, visit your GP for further advice and diagnosis.
What are the treatments for chronic pain?
Chronic pain varies between patients, so the treatment will depend on where the pain is localised, and your specific diagnosis. Because certain conditions can lead to chronic pain syndrome, you might need to undergo a range of tests and scans, to see if there is any joint or tissue damage that could explain your pain. Your doctor may send you for an MRI to determine if your pain is from a herniated disk, an X-ray to examine whether you have osteoarthritis, or a blood test to check for rheumatoid arthritis.
Because of the nature of chronic pain syndrome, it can be problematic finding the direct cause of the pain, so finding the right treatment plan can also prove difficult. Your doctor will most likely suggest a number of different treatment options that will help ‘manage the pain’, rather than stopping it completely. The idea is to stop pain from disrupting your life and causing you further stress and anxiety.
When discomfort sticks around for a long time it can have a debilitating impact on both your mind and body. This prolonged pain can often lead to a number of other health issues including lack of sleep, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, weight gain, depression and fatigue. So treatment options can include everything from pain killers and anti-inflammatories to physio and behavioural therapy, to help deal with the condition.
Some chronic pain treatments can include:
Pain relief medicines like paracetamol, and anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen and diclofenac (take in low doses for the short periods of time as they can have serious side effects). Try:
Steroids, muscle relaxers and antidepressants that also have pain-relieving qualities can also help, and, in severe cases, opiods (usually only recommended as a last resort and for chronic pain in cancer patients). Try:
psychological and behavioural therapies like CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), that address underlying thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviours, mindfulness and relaxation
Physiotherapy, osteopathy and exercise to increase flexibility and mobility.Try:
Other alternative treatments that have been successful in managing chronic pain include acupuncture, hypnosis, meditation and yoga.
Here are 10 uplifting mindfulness exercises you can practice for 10 minutes a day.
You can also take supplements to help protect the body against oxidative stress, and to help with cellular repair. Try:
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