What Is Chronic Pain?

Sophia Delphi May 15, 2022 - 8 min read
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Pain is a highly unpleasant and, unfortunately, very common part of human life. Almost all of us had had the misfortune to experience acute pain at one point in life. However, there are many people who have to deal with pain every single day. In fact, 50 million adults in America are living with chronic pain.

But what is the difference between acute and chronic pain? What kinds of chronic pain are there, and what causes them?

Let’s find out!

What’s the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain?

Acute pain is the painful sensation we feel for a limited period of time, often as a result of some accident or short-time disease. For instance, when we burn our hands, break a bone, have a passing kidney stone, or suffer from appendicitis. Acute pain is our friend — it tells us when there’s something wrong with our body.

So, this natural alarm system makes us pay attention to the damaged spot and urges us to do something to heal it. Like in the case of an ankle sprain, the pain lets us know we should not lean on the leg so as not to damage it further. Or the burning sensation in the throat that helps us realize there’s an infection going on in the body and that we should take some steps to help fight it off.

On the other hand, chronic pain is like a broken alarm that goes off even without an actual reason. Just imagine having a malfunctioning car alarm that turns on every time a cat walks by. Or you can think of it as a smoke alarm that needs a battery change, so it goes off when it doesn’t need to. All in all, a broken alarm system bothers you, wakes you up in the middle of the night, and affects your daily routine without a proper reason.

Can Acute Pain Become Chronic?

Yes, it can. However, there’s no rule that says how long you need to feel painful sensations in the same part of your body for it to become chronic officially.

Some doctors claim that if the pain lasts longer than it should, it deserves to be labeled as chronic right away. Others are a bit more precise and say that the pain needs to last three months. But this benchmark can vary from doctor to doctor. Some state that at least six months need to pass to consider something as chronic, while others extend that period to a year.

For a long time, medical researchers couldn’t find a reason why something would hurt after it was healed. As a result, they often told patients the problem was in their heads. But recent discoveries led them to believe that acute pain can change the way our brains work.

Generally speaking, when we experience pain, it is because our nerves detect a problem and send an alert to the brain. Then, the brain sends back the information on how to get away from the danger and start the healing process.

But the issue appears when the signals continue to travel to the brain and back for a while. In such circumstances, the nervous system can develop a sort of habit and continue sending pain alerts even when there’s no more danger. Simply put, a new pathway has formed that regularly carries the pain signal.

Can Chronic Pain Develop on Its Own?

Again, yes. Chronic pain can develop even without an injury or surgery taking place beforehand. Various conditions can cause chronic pain in different body parts. Here are some of them:

  • Migraine
  • Arthritis
  • Neuropathy (pain caused by nerve damage)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Nerve compression (such as carpal tunnel syndrome or sciatica)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Joint dysfunction (like TMJ)
  • Autoimmune diseases or inflammation
  • Cancer

The problem with chronic pain is that a number of things can cause it. Also, there are various treatments to consider, even for the same cause. So, if you think you have developed chronic pain, it would be best to talk to your doctor and get the right diagnosis. That way, you have a better chance of finding the treatment or management strategy that will work.

What Are Different Types of Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain can come in the form of different sensations, depending on the cause and part of the body it appears in. Therefore, chronic pain can feel like:

  • Tenderness
  • Stiffness
  • Throbbing
  • Ache
  • Dull sensation
  • Stabbing
  • Burning
  • Shooting
  • Electrical sensation (prickly or zingy)

Some even describe their pain as deep or warm, but that’s less common. However, try to be as precise as possible when you explain the feeling to your healthcare provider because it can help them find the cause behind it. For instance, shooting electrical pain is likely caused by a nerve problem.

Less Common Types of Chronic Pain

Some types of chronic pain are not that common and are only linked to specific conditions. Hyperalgesia, a pain amplification, is a perfect example. Hyperalgesia is when the nerves start sending more pain signals to the brain than necessary and get plenty in return. So, basically, the person feels more pain than they usually would.

People who experience hyperalgesia can also suffer from:

  • Inflammation
  • Stroke
  • Fibromyalgia and similar central sensitivity conditions
  • Nerve damage
  • Long-term opioid painkiller usage (oxycodone, Vicodin, etc.)

Allodynia is another unusual type of chronic pain. Allodynia is pain caused by something that is normally not painful. Some examples include moderate heat or cold, fabric brushing against the skin, and light touch. Conditions linked to allodynia are:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Migraine
  • Other central sensitivity disorders

People dealing with hyperalgesia and allodynia often face judgment because others think of them as weak or believe they are making too much fuss. However, the level of pain they feel is real and often crippling.

The Role of Triggers

While some have constant pains, others can experience it in certain situations. For instance, your “bad” knee can hurt only after overuse or in cold weather. Or perhaps you get a migraine only after eating a particular food, like cheese or chocolate.

Tracking triggers is also an important part of finding the right treatment. After learning what causes the pain to appear, the doctor can recommend a better management strategy.

Symptoms That Follow Chronic Pain

Although the first symptom is pain that won’t go away, others appear over time as well. For instance, living in constant pain for months, years, and even decades can cause:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Poor sleep
  • Impaired cognitive function
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea
  • Bad coordination

The list is not final, and there are other less common symptoms that those with chronic-pain conditions experience. Of course, not everyone dealing with chronic pain will have all the symptoms mentioned here.

Getting a Diagnose

During a checkup, try to be as specific as you can about where it hurts, how long the pain lasts, and what kind of pain it is (stabbing, dull, etc.). It would be best if you kept a pain journal because it can help you identify patterns and triggers. After hearing your case, the doctor will probably order some tests, X-rays, and scans to search for a cause. Moreover, they can ask about your medical history.

All that will bring you one step closer to finding an acceptable treatment option. But keep in mind that it can take several tries before you find one that works best.

Possible Treatments

Depending on the cause of your chronic pain, your doctor might recommend one of the following pain medications.

  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Opioid painkillers
  • Corticosteroids
  • Epilepsy drugs
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Anti-rheumatic drugs

Additional treatments include:

  • Massage therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Chiropractic care

Sometimes changes in lifestyle can also make a huge difference. These can be:

  • Diet Modifications
  • Changes in activity levels
  • Special adaptations at work or school
  • Mobility aids
  • Quitting job
  • Quitting some habits like smoking, drinking alcohol, etc.
  • Stress control

Life With Chronic Pain

Only those dealing with chronic pain know how hard it is to live through every single day. Moreover, it can take a long time, years even, to find what’s causing it and even longer to discover the proper treatment. However, don’t lose hope. Science is constantly evolving, and researchers are always looking for new ways to treat various kinds of chronic pain.

In any case, to make your life easier, work with your healthcare provider to find the best pain management option. Also, try including some lifestyle changes to get the best results.