What is chronic pain?
Pain that continues for 3 months or longer is considered chronic. Pain is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong. While it is normal for your body to send pain signals when you are injured or ill, pain that lingers after an illness or injury is not normal. With chronic pain, the pain continues for weeks, months, or years after you recover. Some people develop chronic pain out of the blue, with no injury or illness to trigger pain signals.
Chronic pain can occur anywhere in your body and can range from mild and annoying to pain so severe that it interferes with your mood and ability to function.
Anyone can develop chronic pain. Although it is more common in older adults, it is not a normal part of aging. Older adults are more likely to have long-term medical conditions linked to ongoing pain, such as diabetes or arthritis.
What causes chronic pain?
The cause of chronic pain is not clear. It is possible that certain brain chemicals that usually suppress pain may not work properly. Chronic pain occurs when pain signals continue after you recover from an illness or injury. It can also develop without a known trigger.
What are the symptoms?
Common symptoms of chronic pain include:
- Mild to severe pain that does not go away in an expected amount of time.
- Pain that may be described as shooting, burning, aching, or electrical.
- Discomfort, soreness, tightness, or stiffness.
What other problems can chronic pain cause?
Over time, pain can lead to fatigue, depression, and withdrawal from social and physical activities. The emotional distress may make your pain worse. Your immune system may weaken, leading to frequent infections and illness. You may have so much pain that you become unable to go to work or school or to function in your daily life.
How is chronic pain diagnosed?
Chronic pain is usually diagnosed by your medical history. Your health professional will ask about your past illnesses and your overall health. He or she will also give you a physical exam.
Before a diagnosis is made, tests may be done to rule out or identify other conditions that can cause pain. These tests may include a neurological exam, blood tests, and a mental health assessment. In most cases, test results are normal, making it difficult to know the exact cause of the pain. This does not mean that your pain is not real.
How is it treated?
Mild or occasional pain can be treated at home. Exercising, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, using nonprescription pain relievers such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and trying complementary therapies such as massage and yoga may help reduce chronic pain.
Talk to your health professional if your pain persists or becomes more severe. Medications, acupuncture, injections of local anesthetic, nerve stimulation, and surgery are treatments for some types of chronic pain. In addition, counseling may help you cope with the pain and with common reactions you might have to it such as frustration, fear, anger, depression, and anxiety. Chronic pain often can be successfully managed so that your quality of life significantly improves.