Serious sailors know that a small amount of rust on a boat can become a much bigger problem if it is not addressed quickly. The same applies to pain. Left untreated, it can become worse, become chronic and sometimes spread to other areas of the body.
Chronic pain is generally defined as anything that last longer than three months. It can be the result of diseases such as arthritis and diabetes or as a result of trauma or injury, say from a car accident. Some patients experience constant chronic pain while others may have on-going flare ups that can leave them fearful of when the pain will return.
Early Diagnosis and Intervention is Key
When pain, regardless of its cause, lasts for more than a few days, it should be evaluated by a physician. Based on an exam and perhaps some imaging tests (x-rays, MRIs, ultrasound), the physician can determine the best course of treatment.
But if the pain persists even after following the prescribed treatment plan, the patient should seek the expertise of a pain medicine specialist. These physicians have advanced training and expertise in how to evaluate and treat pain.
They understand that failure to properly and quickly address the source of a patient’s pain can make it more difficult to treat and puts the patient at greater risk for additional injury and/or pain. Consider:
· Changes in gait, posture or motion can result in additional stress and risk for injury to other parts of the body.
· Research has shown that certain knee injuries may be associated with a rapid cascade towards joint failure.[i]
· Injuries and/or trauma can lead to psychogenic pain, which is physical pain (headaches, stomach aches) that can be attributed to stress, anxiety and depression caused by chronic pain.[ii]
· Untreated pain may lead to structural or physiological changes in the brain that may become irreversible and ultimately resistant to treatment.[iii]
Getting to the Source of Chronic Pain
Rather than simply treating the symptoms, the best way to address chronic pain is to identify its source. Some pain is the result of tissue damage, such as cartilage deterioration due to arthritis. But pain may also be caused by nerve damage. Uncontrolled high blood sugar in diabetics can harm the body’s nerves, while compressed or irritated spinal nerve roots can lead to a condition known as radiculopathy.
There is no “one size fits all” solution to chronic pain, but advances in interventional pain medicine are giving patients new hope for conquering their pain. New technologies, such as spinal cord stimulators and vertebral spacers, have joined tried-and-true therapies such as targeted steroidal injections in providing pain specialists with a variety of non-surgical options that address the source of the pain.
The key to effective treatment of chronic pain is to identify the problem early and attack it quickly. Just like that rust spot on a boat.