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What Is Chronic Pain?

Part 1 of 5: Overview

What Is Chronic Pain?


  1. Chronic pain is a condition characterized by long-lasting pain. It can affect any part of the body and cause various sensations of pain.
  2. Chronic pain often occurs when nerve signals malfunction after an injury. In some cases, however, chronic pain may not have any apparent cause.
  3. While there’s no cure for chronic pain, it can be minimized with treatment. Some common treatments include medication, medical procedures, and lifestyle modifications.

Everyone experiences occasional aches and pains. In fact, sudden pain is an important reaction of the nervous system that helps alert you to possible injury. When an injury occurs, pain signals travel from the injured area up the spinal cord and to the brain.

Pain will usually become less severe as the injury heals. However, chronic pain is different from typical pain. With chronic pain, the body continues to send pain signals to the brain, even after an injury heals. This can last several weeks to years. Chronic pain can limit your mobility and reduce your flexibility, strength, and endurance. This may make it challenging to get through daily tasks and activities.


Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts at least 12 weeks. The pain may feel sharp or dull, causing a burning or aching sensation in the affected areas. It may be steady or intermittent, coming and going without any apparent reason. Chronic pain can occur in nearly any part of the body. The pain can feel different in the various affected areas.

Some of the most common types of chronic pain include:

  • headache
  • post-surgical pain
  • post-trauma pain
  • lower back pain
  • cancer pain
  • arthritis pain
  • neurogenic pain (pain caused by nerve damage)
  • psychogenic pain (pain that isn’t caused by disease, injury, or nerve damage)

According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, approximately 1.5 billion people around the world have chronic pain. It’s the most common cause of long-term disability in the United States, affecting about 100 million Americans.

Part 2 of 5: Causes

What Causes Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is usually caused by an initial injury, such as a back sprain or pulled muscle. It’s believed that chronic pain develops after nerves become damaged. The nerve damage makes pain more intense and long lasting. In these cases, treating the underlying injury may not resolve the chronic pain.

In some cases, however, people experience chronic pain without any prior injury. The exact causes of chronic pain without injury aren’t well understood. The pain may sometimes be caused by an underlying health condition, such as:

  • chronic fatigue syndrome: characterized by extreme, prolonged weariness that’s often accompanied by pain
  • endometriosis: a painful disorder that occurs when the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus
  • fibromyalgia: widespread pain in the bones and muscles
  • inflammatory bowel disease: a group of conditions that causes painful, chronic inflammation in the digestive tract
  • interstitial cystitis: a chronic disorder marked by bladder pressure and pain
  • temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ): causes painful clicking, popping, or locking of the jaw
  • vulvodynia: chronic vulva pain that occurs with no obvious cause

Part 3 of 5: Risk Factors

Who Is at Risk for Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain can affect people of all ages, but it’s most common in older adults. Besides age, other factors that can increase your risk of developing chronic pain include:

  • having an injury
  • having surgery
  • being female
  • being overweight or obese

Part 4 of 5: Treatment

How Is Chronic Pain Treated?

The main goal of treatment is to reduce pain and boost mobility. This helps you return to your daily activities without discomfort.

The severity and frequency of chronic pain can differ among individuals. So doctors create pain-management plans that are specific to each person. Your pain-management plan will depend on your symptoms and any underlying health conditions. Medical treatments, lifestyle remedies, or a combination of these methods may be used to treat your chronic pain.

Medications for Chronic Pain

There are several types of medications that can help treat chronic pain:

  • over-the-counter pain relievers, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen, and aspirin
  • opioid pain relievers, including morphine, codeine, and hydrocodone
  • adjuvant analgesics, such as antidepressants and anticonvulsants

Medical Procedures for Chronic Pain

Certain medical procedures can also provide relief from chronic pain:

  • electrical stimulation, which reduces pain by sending mild electric shocks into the muscles
  • nerve block, which is an injection that prevents nerves from sending pain signals to the brain
  • acupuncture, which involves lightly pricking the skin with needles to alleviate pain
  • surgery, which corrects injuries that may have healed improperly and that may be contributing to the pain

Lifestyle Remedies for Chronic Pain

Additionally, various lifestyle remedies are available to help ease chronic pain:

  • physical therapy
  • tai chi
  • yoga
  • art and music therapy
  • pet therapy
  • psychotherapy
  • massage
  • meditation


Part 5 of 5: Coping

Dealing with Chronic Pain

There isn’t a cure for chronic pain, but the condition can be managed successfully. It’s important to stick to your pain-management plan to help relieve symptoms.

Since physical pain is related to emotional pain, chronic pain can increase your stress levels. Building emotional skills can help you cope with any stress related to your condition. Here are some steps you can take to reduce stress:

  • Take good care of your body. Eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly can keep your body healthy and reduce feelings of stress.
  • Continue taking part in your daily activities. You can boost your mood and decrease stress by participating in activities you enjoy and socializing with friends. Chronic pain may make it challenging to perform certain tasks. But isolating yourself can give you a more negative outlook on your condition and increase your sensitivity to pain.
  • Seek support. Friends, family, and support groups can lend you a helping hand and offer comfort during difficult times. Whether you’re having trouble with daily tasks or you’re simply in need of an emotional boost, a close friend or loved one can provide the support you need.



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