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Chronic Pain

What Is Chronic Pain?

The onset of pain is a symptom of illness or injury in the part of the body that is experiencing the pain. The sudden onset of pain is called acute pain. Acute pain gets a person's attention and prompts him or her to take action to prevent further worsening of the condition causing the pain. This could be a simple action such as the reflex that makes a person jerk their hand off a hot stove, or it could be more complex such as cooling, resting, or elevating an injured ankle. Moreover, the pain could prompt the person to see a doctor. Chronic pain is pain that persists over time (6 months or longer) and typically results from long-standing (chronic) medical conditions or damage to the body.

Pain interrupts our work, our recreation, and our relationships with our families. Comfort, that is, not being in pain, is one of the goals if a person becomes sick, and treatment by a health care professional for an illness associated with chronic pain is another goal.

Once the cause of the pain is found and proper treatment is started, the pain may serve the useful function of keeping the affected individual at rest so that the injury or illness can heal. But if the pain is from an illness that is incurable and will never heal, the pain loses its usefulness and becomes harmful. This type of pain keeps a person from normal activity, and inactivity decreases strength.

Common sources of chronic pain include injuries, headaches, backaches, joint pains due to an arthritis condition, sinus pain, tendinitis, or overuse injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Chronic pain is also a feature of many types of advanced cancers.A number of symptoms can accompany chronic pain and can even arise as a direct result of the pain. These can include insomnia or poor quality sleep, irritability, depression and mood changes, anxiety, fatigue, and loss of interest in daily activities. Pain can trigger muscle spasms that can lead to soreness or stiffness.

  • Why pain can become worse: There is a "wind-up phenomenon" that causes untreated pain to get worse. Nerve fibers transmitting the painful impulses to the brain become "trained" to deliver pain signals better. Just like muscles become stronger for sports with training, the nerves become more effective at sending pain signals to the brain. The intensity of the signals increases over and above what is needed to get the affected person's attention. To make matters even worse, the brain becomes more sensitive to the pain. So the pain feels much worse even though the injury or illness is not worsening. At this point, pain may be termed chronic pain. And it is no longer helpful as a signal of illness.
  • The goal in treating pain: When a doctor is consulted, the goal for both patient and the doctor is to no longer have chronic pain. The patient wants the cause of their pain to be found and cured so that he or she can resume normal life without needing medication or further visits to health care professionals.
  • Treating lifelong pain: Unfortunately, many illnesses do not have known cures. The treatment of illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure is often lifelong. In these chronic illnesses, as in the treatment of chronic pain, the person's goal is to live as normally as possible. Sometimes medication is needed for the rest of a person's life in order to achieve that goal.
  • A sensible view of addiction: Chronic pain is no different from diabetes or high blood pressure. If a person needs to be on pain medicine for the rest of his or her life, they should not be said to be "addicted" to pain medicine any more than a person with diabetes who needs to be on insulin for the rest of his or her life should be said to be "addicted" to insulin.
Last Reviewed 11/21/2017

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Chronic Pain Definition

Chronic pain: Pain (an unpleasant sense of discomfort) that persists or progresses over a long period of time. In contrast to acute pain that arises suddenly in response to a specific injury and is usually treatable, chronic pain persists over time and is often resistant to medical treatments.

Chronic pain may be related to a number of different medical conditions including (but not limited to) diabetes, arthritis, migraine, fibromyalgia, cancer, shingles, sciatica, and previous trauma or injury. Chronic pain may worsen in response to environmental and/or psychological factors.

There are a variety of treatment options for people with chronic pain. The goal of pain management is to provide symptom relief and improve an individual's level of functioning in daily activities. A number of types of medications have been used in the management of chronic pain, including acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, COX-2 inhibitors, antimigraine medications, sedatives, opioids, and antidepressants. Nonmedicinal treatments for chronic pain can include exercise, physical therapy, counseling, electrical stimulation, biofeedback, acupuncture, hypnosis, chiropractic medicine, and other treatments.

SOURCE: Chronic pain.

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Chronic Pain Syndrome »

Chronic pain syndrome (CPS) is a common problem that presents a major challenge to healthcare providers because of its complex natural history, unclear etiology, and poor response to therapy.

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