Everyone knows what pain is, but not everyone experiences chronic pain. Acute pain is a common experience; it occurs suddenly and eventually goes away. Acute pain is important because it informs us there is an injury or illness that needs to be addressed. Chronic pain is different. It is pain that lasts a few months or more, long after the message that something is wrong has been received.
There are many things that can cause chronic pain, but treating and managing it is not always simple, even when the cause is known. Chronic pain can have wide repercussions for quality of life, physical and mental health, and social well-being. Getting good care for chronic pain is important for this reason. It is about more than just reducing or eliminating pain. Chronic pain care is all about management and addressing all areas of a person’s health that is impacted by the pain.
What is Chronic Pain?
Exact definitions for chronic pain vary, but generally it is used to describe pain that lasts more than three months. Some definitions state that chronic pain is longer than six months. But generally, chronic pain is distinguished from acute pain by the duration: chronic pain lasts much longer and requires long-term management and care. According to statistics, eleven percent of adults in the U.S. experience chronic pain, meaning they feel pain every day.
What Causes Chronic Pain
The causes of chronic pain vary by individual. This type of pain is more common as people age because there are generally increasing health problems, but anyone at any age could suffer from chronic pain. In some cases no diagnosis is made beyond simply chronic pain if no cause can be determined. The most commonly diagnosed causes of chronic pain are low-back pain and osteoarthritis, the type of arthritis that occurs with age and as cartilage in the joints deteriorates. There are many other potential causes of chronic pain:
- Neuropathy, which is nerve pain, often triggered by nerve damage
- Chronic conditions, like fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis
Pain Medications – Risks and Benefits
Medications that treat pain only treat the symptom, not the underlying cause, but they play an important role in pain management. For chronic pain most painkillers that can be bought over the counter are inadequate. The most potent painkillers are prescription opioids, and there are extended release formulations of these drugs that allow someone with chronic pain to take one pill a day to get relief.
There are risks with this type of care for chronic pain, though. The opioid epidemic that is causing addiction and a large number of overdose deaths demonstrate just how risky these habit-forming drugs can be. Anyone who uses these drugs over the long-term runs the risk of developing a dangerous addiction. While they may help manage pain, drugs for pain are just a part of an overall strategy for treating chronic pain.
Other Treatments for Chronic Pain
Beyond treating the underlying condition of chronic pain, if it can even be determined, most people in this situation need to use multiple strategies to manage the pain. Physical therapy, for instance, can reduce pain in joints, in the back, and in other parts of the musculoskeletal system. Gentle therapeutic exercises like yoga can also be useful. Alternative treatments like guided imagery, biofeedback, acupuncture, electrical stimulation, and massage therapy have also proven helpful in managing pain in some patients. Finding the right combination of therapies and medical treatments is important to help each individual.
Chronic Pain Care Teams
Because each person’s experience with chronic pain is unique, and everyone responds differently to various treatments, chronic pain teams are usually most helpful in managing pain over the long-term. Specialists in pain management head up multi-disciplinary teams that help chronic pain sufferers. For many people, there is no cure for chronic pain, and a general doctor is not adequate for providing relief. Chronic pain can be complex, and an approach that includes professionals in many areas can often provide the greatest benefits. Team members may include:
- Pain specialists.
- Physical therapists.
- Massage therapists.
- Psychiatrists and psychologists.
Unfortunately for many people struggling with chronic pain, this kind of dedicated care is not always available. Pain management teams and pain specialists are often only found in larger hospitals and medical centers.
Chronic Pain and Mental Health Care
Ongoing pain causes more than just physical symptoms. Many people with chronic pain will also struggle with mental health issues and even social isolation. Mental health professionals are important in caregiving teams to help people manage pain. They address the emotional aspects of pain, helping patients to work through anger, depression, anxiety, and other negative feelings. Pain has a psychological component, and good therapy can help improve mood and even relieve physical pain or increase tolerance to pain.
The social component of mental health is also important when it comes to managing pain. Many people with chronic pain become isolated. Social support is a crucial element of care for chronic pain. This can come in the form of relying on family and friends, but social support can also be found in chronic pain support groups, either in real time or online.
The Importance of Self-Management for Chronic Pain
Any comprehensive care plan for chronic pain should include self-management. This means participating in a program that teaches patients self-care strategies to help manage pain at home, over the long-term. When engaged in good self-management, a person with chronic pain can expect to have a greater ability to cope with pain and an improved quality of life. Self-management programs teach patients how to better communicate about pain, how to manage sleep and other lifestyle factors, how to pace activity and rest, how to manage medications, and other practical strategies.
Getting good care for chronic pain is important because living with this persistent pain for months or years can lead to depression, social isolation, illness, and other negative consequences. Quality of life declines with chronic pain, but there is good and effective treatment available. If you or someone you love is struggling with this kind of pain, don’t settle for just painkillers or basic care. Chronic pain requires specialty care and everyone should be able to access it. Talk to your doctor about finding and getting treatment from a pain management team to get the best possible care.