Chronic pain is classified as a pain or discomfort that is ongoing and lasts three months or longer. It is typically caused by an underlying chronic condition, although not always. Unlike pain from pulling a muscle or stubbing your toe that goes away after the injury is healed, chronic pain can last years if not managed by a physician.
This type of pain is not always constant, but it does disrupt daily life by preventing patients from doing what they love.
What Causes Chronic Pain
For many people, chronic pain begins after an injury or trauma. Other times, it can begin without an obvious cause. Some of the most common causes of chronic pain are:
- Previous surgeries or injuries – Old injuries can cause nerve damage because they either were not treated properly the first time or they healed incorrectly.
- Back problems – There are a variety of back conditions that contribute to chronic pain, such as SI Joint Pain, herniated discs, deterioration of the spinal column, spinal cord compression, and many others.
- Migraines or other types of headaches – While chronic headaches are difficult to diagnose, common causes are inflammation, blood pressure issues, stress, or hormone changes in women.
- Arthritis – Arthritis is one of the most common causes of chronic pain and can cause limb deformities, loss of range of motion, stiffness, and inflammation.
- Nerve damage – Chronic nerve pain (neuropathic pain) can be caused by an injury, accident, or infection. When nerves are damaged, they are unable to function properly and that oftentimes leads in a loss of communication between body parts and the brain.
- Fibromyalgia – Fibromyalgia is a musculoskeletal condition that causes widespread muscle pain throughout the body. Studies show that this condition worsens pain by affecting the way your brain processes these signals.
How Does Chronic Pain Affect My Body?
When pain is experienced for a long amount of time, your nociceptors go into overdrive and become more sensitive to pain. They produce lower level signals, making you feel more pain than you are actually experiencing. This is problematic because your body is most likely not in any harm, but your pain receptors exaggerate the pain.
When an injury or trauma occurs, the pain sensors (nociceptors) in that area are “turned on.” They send an electrical current that travels along the nervous system until it reaches the brain. Your brain understands that signal and sends the message that you are hurt. In chronic pain patients, the nerves continue sending the pain signals to the brain, even after the injury is healed.
Why Are Narcotics Bad for Chronic Pain?
Narcotics, in chronic pain patients, create a cyclical relationship and dependency. At first, these drugs may provide a sense of pain relief by attaching themselves to your brain’s endorphin receptors. However, after any length of time, the receptors become dependent on the medication’s effect. The brain limits the amount of endorphins it produces, therefore reducing the body’s natural painkillers. Without natural endorphins, the narcotics have to be taken in order to maintain a level of comfort.
This causes problems when the patient is no longer prescribed these medications from a physician, because their body has become dependent on the narcotics’ effect on the brain. Your brain and body need that chemical to function regularly. Stopping or lowering the dose can cause your body to react poorly, including nausea, shakes, headaches, and other serious problems.
Available Treatment Options
Treatment for chronic pain will depend on the severity of your pain and the diagnosis from your physician. The root cause of the pain will also determine the treatment plan your physician designs.
Medications for Chronic Pain
Medication can be helpful to patients who suffer from chronic pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen are useful in reducing inflammation and stiffness that worsens chronic pain.
Opioids are not recommended by physicians due to the aforementioned risk of dependency and danger of abuse.
Analgesics such as antidepressants and anticonvulsants are useful in chronic pain that is caused by nerve-related disorders. This includes pinched nerves, sciatica, and herniated discs.
Procedures for Chronic Pain
If the chronic pain continues to worsen and other methods of pain relief have not been successful, your physician may recommend a medical procedure.
Some examples include:
- Electrical stimulation
- Nerve block injections
- Facet joint injection
- DRG therapy
- Spinal cord stimulation
There is no cure for chronic pain, but when managed effectively, patients can live their lives relatively pain-free and comfortably.
Under a pain management specialists’ supervision, it is recommended that patients who are looking to reduce chronic pain make lifestyle changes in order to promote health and wellbeing. This includes being active, incorporating low-impact cardio into their daily routine, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep.