We all experience pain at some point in our lives. But, when does pain go from normal, everyday acute pain to chronic pain? Below I discuss the causes and symptoms of chronic pain, and how the 76 million Americans who live with it can find relief.
What is chronic pain?
Chronic pain is considered a persistent type of pain lasting for three months to six months or longer, and lingers beyond the “normal” expected course for healing. It can be mild or severe, continuous or sporadic, merely uncomfortable or totally incapacitating.
Headaches, joint pain, post-trauma pain from injury and backaches are the most common sources of pain. Other kinds of chronic pain include tendonitis, sinus pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetic neuropathy, fibromyalgia, post herpetic neuralgia and pain affecting specific parts of the body, such as the abdomen, shoulders, pelvis and neck.
However, many people suffer from chronic pain in the absence of injury or any previous damage to the body.
What are the symptoms of chronic pain?
When dealing with chronic pain, experiences can vary greatly. Some people experience shooting, burning or stabbing pains, while others experience a “pins and needles” feeling, or dull ache, soreness, tightness and stiffness. Pain almost always is associated with a number of related cause-and-effect symptoms like sleeplessness, withdrawal from activity, weakened immune system and changes in mood including hopelessness, fear, depression, irritability, anxiety and stress.
One of the most devastating effects of chronic pain is the emotional toll it takes on the individual. The anxiety, depression and fatigue (due to lack of restful sleep) that often accompany chronic pain can decrease the body’s production of natural painkillers and make the pain worse (a vicious cycle).
What are the treatment options for chronic pain?
Just as there are multiple types of chronic pain, there are a wide variety of treatment options, from medication to hands-on techniques.
Effective pain treatment requires an individualized pain management program created through patient and physician collaboration. It takes into account both the physical and the emotional/mental symptoms.
What should I do if I’m experiencing pain?
If you are living with chronic pain, I recommend doing the following:
1. Assess your pain by answering the following questions. If you answer “yes” to three or more of the questions, share this with your physician.
• Have you experienced pain in any area of your body in the last 30 days?
• If you have experienced pain in the last 30 days, has it caused you to miss work or prevented you from participating in activities you otherwise would have done?
• Do you ever notice pain in a part of your body, and have no idea what is causing it?
• Do you ever notice pain in one area of your body and ignore it, hoping it will go away?
• Do you ever ignore mild pain until it becomes more severe?
• Have you ever taken an over-the-counter pain relief medication to alleviate your pain?
• Have you ever taken prescription pain relief medication to alleviate your pain?
• Have you ever had to change any of your daily routines or habits because they were causing you pain?
2. Set an appointment to speak with your physician about your pain.
3. Work with your physician to come up with an individualized treatment plan that meets your needs.
4. Follow your personalized pain management/treatment plan.
You don’t have to suffer in silence if you’re living with pain. By starting the conversation with your physician, you will be taking an important first step in finding relief.
Dr. Daniel Callan is a family and occupational medicine specialist for Blount Memorial Business Health.