When someone touches a hot stove and burns their fingers, a little pain is normal. In fact, it’s a healthy reaction to a threat in the environment, warning that person to change their behavior immediately. But sometimes the pain lingers long after the danger has passed, becoming chronic.
Chronic pain in the form of headaches, joint problems, or full-blown fibromyalgia can radically impact one's life. For many people, there is no end in sight to the pain; it may even derail employment and relationships. Some 100 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain. It can be influenced by many factors, including emotion and memory.
When an injury occurs, pain sensors light up, sending messages via an electrical signal to the brain. Normal pain—as in a minor headache—can be relieved by a few aspirins or the passage of time. But chronic pain is something different; the brain continues to receive pain signals long after the original injury or onset of pain.
Pain from a chronic condition can range from a dull ache to throbbing agony. Other symptoms may include exhaustion, daytime fatigue, poor sleep, or mood swings. Sometimes the pain is severe enough to interfere with day-to-day functioning and enjoyment. Chronic pain can also lead to cognitive problems and, in some cases, depression.
Generally, any pain that lasts three months or longer is considered chronic. For those who are lucky, it will end within months, but for others, chronic pain can go on indefinitely.
While anyone can suffer from chronic pain, people are more susceptible if they are female, over 65 years old, overweight, depressed, or have a history of smoking. Having surgery can also increase a person’s chances of getting chronic pain.
Pain was traditionally treated primarily as a physical problem. Patients were given medication, physical therapy, or, in extreme cases, surgery. While these methods helped some people, others experienced moderate to severe negative consequences, including surgical complications and addiction to pain medication and opioids.
Today, experts understand that pain can be addressed on the psychological and social levels as well. Though every individual's pain is different and may respond to different interventions, there are certain strategies that can help manage the symptoms of chronic pain.
Historically, pain was considered a physical sensation felt somewhere in the body. Research has shown that pain activates some of the same areas of the brain that handle emotions, such as the limbic system. This means that pain may be caused or exacerbated by biological, psychological, or social factors, which opens up more avenues for effective treatment.
Breathing and meditation practices can help reduce symptoms of stress that may be exacerbating pain. To further manage pain, it may be best to not smoke and to limit alcohol. Practicing good sleep hygiene, getting adequate exercise, and eating healthfully can have beneficial effects as well, as can exercising self-compassion.
Chronic pain can contribute to the development of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Chronic pain sufferers who are struggling with such challenges can benefit from seeing a therapist; there are even clinicians who specialize in treating the negative emotions triggered by chronic pain.