As lifestyles have changed to include more time in front of video conferencing equipment instead of exercise equipment, pain has become an unwelcomed side effect. Single instances of “overdoing it” or obvious injuries often resolve with time and conservative care, but what happens when the pain persists? When it becomes a part of your daily life? Learning to live with and treat it becomes slightly more complicated than the time-honored “take two of these and call me in the morning.”
What is Chronic Pain?
The medical definition of chronic pain is easy to understand. Pain that lasts for several weeks or months, even extending into years, is considered chronic. Like acute pain that usually goes away once the body heals, chronic pain can often be caused by injury. Chronic pain occurs when your nerves continue to signal to your brain that there is injury even after the body has healed. As a result, your body regularly feels sensations that can include aches, stiffness, throbbing, burning, or stinging. “In its simplest form, the feeling of pain comes from a series of messages that zip through your nervous system to your brain, sending the message that you hurt. With chronic pain, the pain signals continue long term or the cause of those signals will not resolve,” notes Dr. Christopher Annis, an anesthesiologist and interventional pain management physician at the Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Center of Northern Indiana.
But not all chronic pain is the result of injury. There are also several serious medical conditions that can trigger it. When people think of conditions that cause chronic pain, they often think of arthritis, fibromyalgia, or recurring migraines. But other conditions and infections, such as diabetes, cancer, or shingles, can also cause it. Therefore, it is important to discuss any lingering pain with your doctor to ensure that there are no underlying health issues that are responsible for it.
Whether your pain is caused by an old injury or some other medical diagnosis, chronic pain can greatly affect you in ways besides physical discomfort. “Pain can also be defined as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage,” says Dr. Annis. People with chronic pain often find it interferes with their daily lives and activities by limiting their mobility or preventing them from sleeping well. The stress that results can then cause a loss of self-esteem and a rise in feelings of anger and depression. However, with a proper treatment plan developed with your doctor, many people who experience chronic pain find ways to reduce their symptoms, manage the pain, and live fulfilling lives in spite of any flare-ups they might have.
Who Diagnoses Chronic Pain?
For many individuals, a diagnosis for any kind of pain begins with their primary care physician. He or she will assess your condition and history, often order diagnostic scans such as an X-ray or MRI, and determine if you need a referral to a specialist.
Depending on the nature and duration of your pain, your physician might recommend that you visit a pain management specialist, a physician who is specially trained to evaluate, diagnose, and treat a variety of types and causes of pain. These doctors have often completed a fellowship in Pain Management, which involves additional training that is completed after medical school, internships, residencies, and Board certification in a primary specialty. They often work closely with primary care physicians and other specialists, such as oncologists, neurologists, or orthopedic surgeons, to ensure that a patient receives the type of care most appropriate for their condition.
What Treatments Can Help Chronic Pain?
Your physician can help determine what types of treatment will likely be the most effective for you, depending on the cause and nature of your pain. If your pain is caused by an old injury or it causes you to feel stiff, physical therapy or mild exercise can often relieve the pain and help your body move more fluidly. Exercise can also help improve your sleep, which can help reduce stress levels that result from the pain. If your pain is caused by other medical conditions, lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking or adjusting your diet can help reduce inflammation and pain flare-ups.
Others suffering from chronic pain have found help through activities such as yoga or acupuncture. These practices can also aid in relaxation and help reduce the level of stress that often accompanies chronic pain.
When conservative and non-invasive treatments fail, Pain Management physicians have interventions that include injections or minor surgical procedures. If your pain has lasted for an extended length of time and has begun to affect your moods and emotional well-being, there is no shame in seeking mental health assistance. Doctors will often prescribe antidepressants to assist patients who are dealing with chronic pain, but psychologists and licensed counselors can also provide support as you learn to adjust to the changes to your life and lifestyle that learning to manage chronic pain can bring.
Whatever the cause, though, it is important to remember that you do not have to suffer with chronic pain. There are treatments and steps you and your doctor can take that can help you reduce the pain and successfully manage your symptoms.