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What is Chronic Pain and What Can You Do To Manage It?

A grayscale photo of a man, facing away from the camera, hunched over, clutching his back hip.

When your body is in pain, it can be difficult to think about anything else. Your brain might feel foggy, your breath momentarily halted, and your mind unable to focus. Whether it’s an injury from a broken bone or an issue regarding long-term pain, any moment of relief can feel life-saving.

Chronic pain is a major concern among many health care officials around the United States, and the source and severity of the pain can be different for everyone. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), based on the National Health Interview Survey conducted in 2012, an estimated 25.3 million adults — or about 11.2 percent of the population in America — suffer from chronic pain.

It can be debilitating, and finding a solution or remedy can often be difficult, but essential, in order to live a comfortable life. Let’s explore the definition of chronic pain and what management options may be available to those that are struggling with it.

What is Chronic Pain?

As NIH MedlinePlus states, chronic pain is typically defined as ongoing pain that lasts more than 12 weeks (3 months). Whereas acute pain is often accompanied by an initial injury — such as a broken bone or an injury sustained in an accident — chronic pain may be persisting pain from a past injury, due to an illness, or it may not have an identifiable cause at all.

Essentially, chronic pain persists for an extended period of time, and that may interfere significantly with the ability to live a comfortable life. Chronic pain can lead to a host of symptoms that can, in turn, cause additional problems for an individual, depending on the severity of the pain, including:

  • Fatigue;
  • Sleep disturbance;
  • Decreased appetite;
  • Mood changes;
  • Limiting range of motion;
  • Limiting strength or flexibility.

Causes of Chronic Pain

As MedlinePlus explained in the article cited above, the causes of chronic pain can vary, depending on any potential underlying conditions or illnesses. One common example of chronic pain is persistent back pain due to a lasting issue, such as a slipped disk, sprained muscles, or or similar physical trauma.

It may also be pain caused by illnesses such as endometriosis, scoliosis, diabetes nerve pain (type I and type II), arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and much more. It is very common for chronic illnesses to also have accompanying chronic pain, as the signifier “chronic” relates to any condition that lasts longer than 3 months.

Unfortunately, it can also be common to experience chronic pain without the presence of any underlying condition. At times, this can happen due to a past injury that has healed, but leaves scar tissue in the area that causes nerve pain. Similarly, chronic pain may simply appear without warning and without relation to any known condition. It can be difficult for doctors to diagnose and treat the causes of chronic pain in these cases, especially when a patient does not have any relevant previous medical history related to pain or physical trauma.

Chronic Pain Management

There are many management strategies that are available to those struggling with chronic pain. For those that have a known cause, treating the underlying condition or disease may be the best option for management.

However, for conditions that may not have a cure, or for those that have not identified the source of their chronic pain, there are also alternative methods that may help minimize the severity of the symptoms. Below are some of the most common methods for managing chronic pain.

Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drugs

One of the more common options for pain management is the use of prescription medications and over-the-counter painkillers.

Prescription medications require a written approval from a physician and must be purchased and fulfilled by a pharmacist. These prescriptions are typically accompanied with medication management on behalf of the prescribing physician to ensure the patient will not form a dependence on the medications being prescribed, and that other prescriptions the patient is taking will not counteract or potentially harm the patient.

Over-the-counter, or non-prescription drugs typically do not require management by a physician (although a physician may suggest this method), and can be purchased at any drug, convenience, or grocery store. However, despite the ease of availability of these drugs, many Americans do not understand the ingredients and risks that may come with taking over-the-counter painkillers, and often they are not as high-strength as prescription medications. As WebMD notes, not being aware of the ingredients can cause some patients to accidentally overdose on medications, which can cause organ issues or failure. Additionally, some medications should not be mixed with other substances, such as alcohol, which can cause negative side effects to manifest. It’s important to be aware of the properties of the OTC painkillers that you are seeking out, as well as what their primary ingredients may be.

Like over-the-counter medicines, prescriptions painkillers are associated with a certain amount of risk. One of the most common issues with prescription drugs for pain management is the potential to form a dependency on the drug. This is especially true for opioid-based painkillers, as users have a high chance of forming a dependency or addiction to the drug, causing many additional health issues in the United States. This includes the opioid overdose crisis.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is the treatment of muscular, skeletal, or other injuries related to a known condition or illness through the use of physical methods, such as massage, heat treatment, and specialized exercises, rather than surgery or medications (although those can also be combined with this type of therapy).

Physical therapists (PTs) can be very helpful for patients that have suffered some form of physical trauma. Through the use of guided exercises and relaxation of the muscles, PTs can stretch and strengthen painful areas of the body in a healthy and controlled environment, helping the body to naturally begin to heal and strengthen.

These therapies can help alleviate pain by promoting blood circulation to affected areas, which can help activate the natural healing process. There are also many different types of physical therapy treatments that focus on different areas of the body or different physical functions. Additionally, with a PT as their guide, patients can also lower their risk of exacerbating the pain or underlying condition. Physical therapy can be a rigorous process, and may require daily or weekly check ins in order for patients to notice a significant change or improvement.

Diet

Depending on the source or underlying condition that is causing chronic pain, adjusting and improving personal diet can be a very viable solution to help alleviate symptoms. As was noted in a 2018 issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, chronic pain that is related to inflammation in the body could be alleviate with a change in diet.

The typical anti-inflammatory diet often consists of large servings of vegetables and fruits, minimal (if any) red meat, restricted use of dairy and non-whole grains, and either a lot of fish or vegetarian dishes as the main course.

These diets help some people feel relief related to inflammation by cutting back on potential “toxin” intake that causes inflammation in the first place. Coupled with exercise, this diet can also help alleviate stress, which has been known to cause an inflammatory response in the body on its own.

Psychological Treatment

Counseling or therapy can be beneficial for many people — not just those struggling with chronic pain. However, for those that want assistance in managing their pain, psychological treatment with a licensed therapist or counselor can help equip patients with mental strategies and techniques that can help alleviate symptoms and strengthen focus.

One of the most recognized forms of psychological relief is the use of mindfulness meditation. Author Danny Penman explained for Psychology Today exactly how mindfulness meditation can alleviate pain symptoms:

“A typical meditation involves focusing on different parts of the body and simply observing with the mind’s eye what you find. This allows you to see your mind and body in action, to observe painful sensations as they arise, and to let go of struggling with them. When you do this, something remarkable happens: your suffering begins to melt away of its own accord.”

Mindfulness meditation and therapy often go hand in hand, and therapists can help guide patients through each step of the process until they’re able to meditate on their own. Some studies have come to find a significant decrease in symptoms through this technique, and it can often work well with other forms of pain relief, such as medication or physical therapy.

Alternative Remedies

Another promising method of pain relief is being explored via the use of cannabidiol, or CBD oil derived from the cannabis (hemp) plant. So far, there have been multiple promising studies that suggest CBD can be used in reducing and managing the amount of pain that chronic pain sufferers experience.

A 2016 study published in the “European Journal of Pain” looked at lab rats with arthritis, and found a significant reduction in pain when the subjects were given transdermal shots (shots just below the skin that could be absorbed over time) of cannabidiol. The most promising aspects of the study included that CBD, when administered topically, had noticeable effects on decreasing inflammation and reducing pain-related behaviors in the subjects, without any negative side effects that often accompany other pain-relief methods.

An article from “Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management” that was published in 2008 also highlights the minimal, but effective research that has been conducted on utilizing CBD for pain management. Many of the studies mentioned in this larger piece have modest to overwhelmingly positive conclusions in regards to CBD for pain relief, whether through inhalation of vapor, or the use of topical creams or CBD oil concentrates.

Overall, further research still needs to be conducted into how CBD helps in pain management, and what risks may be associated with its use. It can be difficult to determine the amount of CBD that should be used for every patient, as personal needs may require different strengths. Additionally, CBD can occasionally interact with the absorption of certain medications, including pain medications and antidepressants, so it’s important to consult a medical professional if you have any concerns.

Despite the lack of conclusive research, the overwhelmingly positive initial findings suggest that CBD may be a viable option for helping manage chronic pain. To start, patients can purchase CBD oil online and experiment with dosages to see what may work best for reducing and managing their pain.

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