by Dr. Jonathan Jones
Pain happens. It’s a prime symptom of most injuries and illnesses. When the pain fades, you know that you’re getting better. But what happens when the pain does not go away–when it lingers for months or even years? Chronic pain is pain lasting three months or pain lasting longer than expected.
Frustration related to chronic pain leads to stress, and stress causes more pain. Pain that keeps you awake at night makes you feel tired and painful the next day. And the increased pain makes it even harder to sleep the following night. When you’re hurting, you don’t feel like exercising–or moving at all. Your muscles stiffen, and you feel even worse.
Over-the-counter medications can be used for occasional relief but are not intended to be taken at high doses for long periods. All nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding and heart disease.
While the severity of the injury or illness may determine the severity and nature of the pain over the short term, chronic pain is determined more by changes that take place in the brain and central nervous system.
The initial pain from an injury or illness can gradually become chronic. If the pain signals are not adequately treated, they are sent again and again, causing changes in the central nervous system. Eventually, even the slightest touch becomes painful.
Clearly, toughing out pain is not the answer; early treatment is the key to long-term success. It’s important to treat the underlying cause, and that will usually make the pain subside. In some cases, though, the pain continues even after successful treatment. Long-term pain management is better handled by seeing a pain expert as well as your regular physician.
One of the best treatments is exercise or physical activity. It improves circulation and muscle tone, distracts the mind from the pain, elevates mood, and stimulates the production of natural pain killing neurochemicals. Studies show that almost any type of activity helps, as long as it doesn’t aggravate an injury or a painful joint.
Dealing with chronic pain is never easy and nearly always requires more than one approach or treatment. A good pain management team can help you reduce your suffering even if the pain is never entirely eliminated. And, more important, pain management can help you learn to go on with your life.