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Chronic Pain Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

When pain lasts for months – or even years — it's chronic. The definition of chronic pain is long-lasting pain that disrupts how you live your life.

When pain doesn't go away, it can affect your mental health.

Chronic pain is a common complaint that doctors hear.

Pain can start right away after an illness, injury, or health treatment (acute pain). But when pain doesn't resolve months after healing, doctors see it as chronic.

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What Is Chronic Pain?

Doctors define chronic pain by how long it lasts. If you're still feeling pain 3 to 6 months after healing from an illness or injury, it's chronic.

You may feel it all over your body or in a distinct area.

You may also have chronic pain if you have certain health issues or if you're having cancer treatment.

Chronic pain can affect your body's systems.

It can trigger your body's stress response and affect your:

  • Emotions.
  • Sleep.
  • Quality of life.

What are the types of chronic pain?

There are a few types of chronic pain. You may have more than one type at the same time.

Chronic inflammation

An immune system response to an infection or health problem can cause pain that lasts.

Chronic pain can result from autoimmune disorders like:

  • Guillain-Barre syndrome.
  • Psoriatic arthritis.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus.

Musculoskeletal conditions or injuries

You may have chronic pain because of an issue that affects your bones, connective tissue, and muscles, such as:

  • Back pain.
  • Fibromyalgia.
  • Injuries.
  • Osteoarthritis.
  • Spondylosis.

Nerve conditions

Problems or injuries that affect your nerves can cause chronic pain.

These include:

  • Diabetic neuropathy.
  • Headaches.
  • Multiple sclerosis.
  • Peripheral neuropathy.

Psychogenic pain

Sometimes, chronic pain happens for no clear reason. You don't have an injury, illness, or issue that's causing pain.

Instead, your mind is causing chronic pain due to mental health or personal factors.

Doctors no longer use the outdated term "psychogenic pain" to describe this type of chronic pain.

What causes chronic pain?

Pain is your body's normal response to a certain issue.

When you're injured or ill, nerves send signals to your brain. Special receptors (neurons) in your brain get these signals and make you feel pain.

When you have chronic pain, your body sends these signals to your brain nonstop.

What are chronic pain risk factors and complications?

You may be more likely to have chronic pain if you have certain risk factors. And it may get worse if you don't see a doctor when you should.

Chronic pain risk factors

You may be at higher risk for chronic pain if you are:

  • Female.
  • Older.
  • Overweight.
  • A smoker.

Complications of chronic pain

Chronic pain can affect your mental well-being and quality of life.

If you take medicines for a long time to treat chronic pain, you may have side effects. You could also become addicted to certain pain medicines.

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Chronic Pain Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are the signs and symptoms of chronic pain?

Chronic pain symptoms vary.

You may feel stiffness or pain that's:

  • Burning.
  • Dull.
  • Sharp.
  • Throbbing.

Chronic pain may also cause you to:

  • Feel tired.
  • Have trouble sleeping.
  • Have changes in your mood.

How do doctors diagnose chronic pain?

To diagnose chronic pain, your doctor will talk with you about your symptoms and examine you. They'll ask you how long you've been feeling pain.

They may also order:

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How Do You Treat Chronic Pain?

Doctors can't always cure chronic pain. Chronic pain treatment includes medical and non-medical ways to relieve you from constant pain.

Medicine to treat chronic pain

You may take over-the-counter pain relievers like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

If you're in excruciating pain, your doctor may suggest:

  • Anti-seizure medicines to manage nerve pain.
  • Muscle relaxers to relieve sore muscles.
  • Prescription opioids to control pain. Talk to your doctor about the risks of opiod addiction.

Non-medical treatments for chronic pain

Your doctor may suggest complementary therapies (integrative medicine) to help you take control of your pain and feel better. You may have:

These include:

  • Acupuncture.
  • Hypnosis.
  • Massage.
  • Mindfulness.
  • Meditation.
  • Yoga.

Talk to your pain management provider about whether these techniques are right for you.

Occupational therapy (OT) for chronic pain

If you have chronic pain, OT can help you:

  • Manage daily activities.
  • Form new routines
  • Change your environment to make it easier for you to move.

Physical therapy (PT) for chronic pain

PT uses exercises you can do at home to relieve severe pain, such as:

  • Posture improvement (body mechanics).
  • Strength and conditioning.
  • Stretching.

Movement for managing chronic pain

Your doctor may want you to do low-impact exercises. Regular movement helps prevent joints and muscles from getting stiff.

Based on your issue, your provider may suggest:

  • Biking.
  • Walking.
  • Swimming.
  • Yoga.

Surgery for chronic pain

Surgery can help relieve chronic pain, but it isn't right for everyone. Talk to your doctor to see if surgery may help you.

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