What is chronic pain?
Chronic pain is usually defined as pain that persists beyond the normal time that tissues take to heal following an injury. Most soft tissue injuries heal up within 6-12 weeks, although some can take several months to completely heal.
If a pain continues longer than 3-6 months, it is usually described by pain specialists as “chronic” or “persistent” pain. It is helpful to understand the differences between chronic, persistent pain and acute pain.
Acute pain: short-term pains act as an alarm, telling us that something is wrong. While most minor pains are easily treated and quickly forgotten, others are a sign of something more serious that we shouldn’t ignore. For example, the pain of a broken leg is helpful because it makes us rest the leg until it heals.
Chronic pain: persistent pain though often serves no useful purpose. The pain messages linked to long-term conditions such as back pain or arthritis are not helpful, and can be annoying and sometimes devastating.
Over time, the pain may affect how we function, including our ability to work and our sleep patterns. It can also have a negative effect on our family and friends.
The causes of chronic pain are not always clear but in some conditions the pain is thought to be due to the pain signals through the nerve fibres becoming confused. The brain is then unable to understand the signals properly. Chronic pain can affect any part of the body and people of any age, including children.
The nerve network associated with chronic pain is also linked to those parts of the brain concerned with emotions. So, pain can affect our emotions, and our emotions can affect our pain. If we are angry, depressed or anxious, for example, the pain often feels worse. If we are feeling positive and happy, we may experience less pain and will often be better able to cope. Pain then is never “just in the mind” or “just in the body”, but a complex mix affecting our whole being.
The relationship between body and mind is complex, so it is important to seek help for any aspect of your condition that you might be struggling with, physical or mental.
How is chronic pain managed?
If your pain persists and becomes chronic then the emphasis might shift more to managing the condition and minimising its impact on your life, rather than necessarily finding a cure.
Some treatments are available which can reduce the pain intensity. For example, you might be prescribed medication, from simple pain-killers to more complex drugs. Other treatments to help reduce the pain include “hands on” treatments, massage and acupuncture, although the benefits of these treatments tend to wear off after each treatment session.
Another way of managing long-term pain is to find ways to reduce the impact of the pain on overall quality of life. This might include learning relaxation techniques, developing goal-setting skills, and learning ways of improving sleep quality.
You could be referred to a specialist pain clinic or a specific pain management programme. Some pain clinics have teams of expert healthcare professionals including doctors, psychologists and physiotherapists. However, pain clinics are not available in every area.
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