Chronic pain: causes, types, and symptoms, what can help
Doctors often define chronic pain as any pain that lasts for 3 to 6 months or more. The pain can be there all the time or come and go.
Everyone experiences occasional aches and pains. In fact, sudden pain is an important reaction of the nervous system that helps alert you to possible injury. Once the injury heals, you stop hurting. Chronic pain is different. Your body keeps hurting weeks, months, or even years after the injury. Doctors often define chronic pain as any pain that lasts for 3 to 6 months or more. The pain can be there all the time, or it may come and go. It can happen anywhere in your body.
Chronic pain can interfere with your daily activities, such as working, having a social life and taking care of yourself or others. It can lead to depression, anxiety and trouble sleeping, which can make your pain worse. This response creates a cycle that’s difficult to break.
Chronic pain differs from another type of pain called acute pain. Acute pain happens when you get hurt, such as experiencing a simple cut to your skin or a broken bone. It doesn’t last long, and it goes away after your body heals from whatever caused the pain. In contrast, chronic pain continues long after you recover from an injury or illness. Sometimes it even happens for no obvious reason.
Types of chronic pain
According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, more than 1.5 billion people around the world have chronic pain. It’s the most common cause of long-term disability in the United States, affecting about 100 million Americans.
Some of the most common types of chronic pain include:
- postsurgical pain
- post-trauma pain
- lower back pain
- cancer pain
- arthritis pain
- neurogenic pain (pain caused by nerve damage)
- psychogenic pain (pain that isn’t caused by disease, injury, or nerve damage)
Common causes of chronic pain
Chronic pain is usually caused by an initial injury, such as a back sprain or pulled muscle. It’s believed that chronic pain develops after nerves become damaged. The nerve damage makes pain more intense and long lasting. In these cases, treating the underlying injury may not resolve the chronic pain.
In some cases, however, people experience chronic pain without any prior injury. The exact causes of chronic pain without injury aren’t well understood.
- chronic fatigue syndrome: characterized by extreme, prolonged weariness that’s often accompanied by pain
- endometriosis: a painful disorder that occurs when the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus
- fibromyalgia: widespread pain in the bones and muscles
- inflammatory bowel disease: a group of conditions that causes painful, chronic inflammation in the digestive tract
- interstitial cystitis: a chronic disorder marked by bladder pressure and pain
- temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ): a condition that causes painful clicking, popping, or locking of the jaw
- vulvodynia: chronic vulva pain that occurs with no obvious cause
- past injuries or surgeries
- back problems
- migraines and other headaches
- nerve damage
Symptoms of chronic pain
Chronic pain can range from mild to severe. It can continue day after day or come and go. The pain can feel like:
- A dull ache
Sometimes pain is just one of many symptoms and can also include one or more of the following:
- Feeling very tired or wiped out
- Not feeling hungry
- Trouble sleeping
- Mood changes
- A lack of energy
Diagnosis of chronic pain
Pain is considered to be chronic if it lasts or comes and goes (recurs) for more than three months. Pain is usually a symptom, so your healthcare provider needs to determine what’s causing your pain, if possible. Pain is subjective — only the person experiencing it can identify and describe it — so it can be difficult for providers to determine the cause.
If you have long-lasting pain, see your healthcare provider. Your provider will want to know:
- Where your pain is.
- How intense it is, on a scale of 0 to 10.
- How often it occurs.
- How much it’s affecting your life and work.
- What makes it worse or better.
- Whether you have a lot of stress or anxiety in your life.
- Whether you’ve had any illnesses or surgeries.
Your healthcare provider may physically examine your body and order tests to look for the cause of the pain. They may have you undergo the following tests:
- Blood tests.
- Electromyography to test muscle activity.
- Imaging tests, such as X-rays and MRI.
- Nerve conduction studies to see if your nerves are reacting properly.
- Reflex and balance tests.
- Spinal fluid tests.
- Urine tests.
Lifestyle changes to help with chronic pain
Four major lifestyle factors can affect your chronic pain and help minimize it. Healthcare providers sometimes call them the four pillars of chronic pain. They include:
- Stress: Stress can play a major role in chronic pain, so it’s important to try to reduce your stress as much as possible. Everyone has different techniques for managing their stress, but some techniques include meditation, mindfulness and deep breathing. Try different options until you find what works best for you.
- Exercise: Participating in low-intensity exercises, such as walking or light swimming, for 30 minutes every day may help reduce your pain. Exercise can also be a stress reliever for some people, which is important to manage when you have chronic pain.
- Diet: It’s important to eat a healthy diet to boost your overall health. Your healthcare provider may suggest trying an anti-inflammatory diet by eliminating foods that cause inflammation, such as red meat and refined carbohydrates.
- Sleep: Getting enough quality sleep is important for your overall health. A lack of sleep can cause you to gain weight, which could make your chronic pain worse. Getting quality sleep is also important for stress management.
Apart from that, friends, family, and support groups can lend you a helping hand and offer comfort during difficult times. Whether you’re having trouble with daily tasks or you’re simply in need of an emotional boost, a close friend or loved one can provide the support you need.
NOTE: The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.