Chronic pain is an ongoing pain that persists for three months or more. It can come and go from hour to hour or day to day, but it never completely disappears. Unlike acute pain, such as when you cut your finger or bang your knee, chronic pain can last for months, years, or even a lifetime.
Read on to learn more about the most common causes of chronic pain, types of chronic pain, chronic pain symptoms, and treatments for chronic pain. For most people, chronic pain changes their lives and the lives of those around them in a negative way. However, there are ways to manage or eliminate chronic pain today so it doesn’t take over your life. Once you understand more about chronic pain, you can take the steps you need to get it under control so it doesn’t become the focus of your life.
Causes of Chronic Pain
There are dozens of possible causes of chronic pain. Knowing the source of your pain is helpful for treatment, although it’s not always necessary. There is such a thing as idiopathic pain, which is pain from an unknown cause.
We can divide chronic pain into two basic types: neuropathic and nociceptive. Neuropathic pain is a cause of damage to or dysfunction of the nervous system, such as neuropathic pain associated with diabetes. Nociceptive pain happens when pain receptors in the body are activated, often due to an injury or degenerative condition like arthritis.
Chronic pain can fall into one of five types:
- Nerve pain (neuropathy, sciatica, etc.)
- Muscle pain
- Mechanical or compressive pain (from a tumor or spinal disc pressing on the spinal cord or a nerve)
- Inflammatory pain (arthritis, soft tissue injury, infection, etc.)
- Psychogenic pain (not caused by one of the four types above, such as pain with depression that is often due to inadequate serotonin or norepinephrine)
Within those four types of pain, medical practitioners find many different unique causes of chronic pain. Some of the most common causes include:
- Back pain due to slipped or bulging discs, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), soft tissue injury (strain or trauma), fractures (including those related to osteoporosis), and spinal deformities like scoliosis or lordosis
- Headaches due to eyestrain, migraines, tension, hormones, or enlarged blood vessels
- Joint pain caused by various types of arthritis (osteo, rheumatoid, psoriatic, etc.), tendinitis, bursitis, and repetitive motion (such as walking, typing, sports, or physical labor)
- Nerve pain, such as sciatica, pseudo sciatica (also known as piriformis or deep gluteal syndrome), diabetic neuropathy, and postherpetic neuralgia after having had shingles
- Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, or another poorly understood chronic pain syndrome
- Post-surgical pain after an operation, including phantom pain after amputation
- Cancer and compressive pain caused by other types of lesions
- Post-trauma pain from an injury (anything from a car accident to a broken bone years ago)
- Endometriosis (growth of the uterine lining outside the uterus)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) irritating the digestive tract
- Interstitial cystitis that results in pain due to bladder pressure
- TMJ or temporomandibular joint dysfunction
- Hypothyroidism (low thyroid function)
Risk Factors of Chronic Pain
While it may seem that chronic pain came out of nowhere, risk factors predispose people to long-term pain or a pain disorder. If you have had these health concerns, you may be more likely to suffer from chronic pain:
- Depression and anxiety
- Work involving strenuous physical labor or repetitive motion, especially in an environment without good ergonomic support (including driving)
- Participation in high-impact sports involving running, jumping, or physical contact
- Diabetes and kidney disease
- Diagnoses with certain disorders, like endometriosis, IBS, or TMJ
- History of physical trauma, injury, or major surgery
- Work that entails long hours reading or using a computer
- High-stress lifestyle
- Inadequate sleep for long periods or chronic fatigue
- Poor nutrition, including eating disorders
- Chemotherapy or certain medications that stress internal organs
- Being in the military or being a veteran
- Excess alcohol consumption and smoking
- Genetics (family members with a history of chronic pain)
- Lack of regular sunlight and vitamin D
- Being overweight
- Aging (chronic pain is more common in the elderly)
Many of these risk factors link with chronic pain symptoms. For example, people who work in high-stress jobs are already prone to chronic pain. When their work stress impacts their sleep, diet, alcohol intake, and exercise, chronic pain symptoms can worsen, leading to even worse sleep, overeating, more drinking, and obesity.
Treatments for Chronic Pain
A treatment plan for ongoing pain first looks at the cause and chronic pain symptoms, as different methods work best depending on the individual situation. Also, everyone’s threshold for pain is unique. Therefore, doctors may reserve some treatments, such as surgery or prescription medication, for when the pain becomes unbearable. A more conservative approach is to avoid costly operations with long recovery periods or the risk of addiction to pharmaceuticals like opioids.
Fortunately, there are many options for treating chronic pain today, and there is a wealth of technology available to help diagnose pain and assess treatment progress. Some of the most common chronic pain treatments include:
- Over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), which work well for chronic pain and inflammation
- Antidepressant medications
- Muscle relaxants
- Sleep aids
- Other classes of prescription medication, such as antirheumatics, anticonvulsants, and opioids
- Acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine
- Application of heat or cold
- Deep brain or spinal cord stimulation
- Diet modification
- Nerve blocks
- TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit that interrupts pain signals between the body and the brain
Living with Chronic Pain
Sometimes practitioners cannot wholly eliminate chronic pain symptoms, even with the treatments listed in the previous section. Nevertheless, they do their best to relieve symptoms while helping patients learn to live with chronic pain, which in some cases can be a lifelong disability.
Other modalities help people manage their pain, especially those involving fostering a mind-body connection. For some people, meditation, gentle yoga, tai chi, and music or art therapy are very effective. Animal therapy is another growing area of assistance with chronic pain, such as small pet therapy or grooming horses.
Talk therapy with a counselor can be essential in helping those with chronic pain. It gives them an outlet for discussing pain-related psychological issues and can provide direction for managing stress, dealing with family, and handling work.
Take the First Step Toward Managing Chronic Pain
If you have chronic pain, you can take steps to make it better, and in some cases, you can eliminate the pain. The first step is to get a proper diagnosis to understand the cause of your pain. Then, you want to work with a medical professional to reduce risk factors and try treatment methods that may work for you. Sometimes you may attempt multiple treatments before you find one that relieves your pain, and you may need to pair several treatment modalities to get the best results.
Don’t let chronic pain ruin your life or assume that you can do nothing about it. Carolinas Pain Center is here to help empower you regarding chronic pain, particularly if you haven’t been able to find relief elsewhere. We offer various services for the different types of pain listed here, and we understand your pain requires a treatment plan tailored to your unique needs. To learn more or schedule an appointment, call us at 704-500-2332. Or reach out online to let us know how we can help.