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Chronic Pain: Signs, Causes, and Treatment

7 min read

By Clarissa Vanner

  • Chronic pain is pain that lasts for several months. Sometimes it’s constant, other times it may come and go.
  • Not only is chronic pain uncomfortable but it can interfere with your daily life and affect your mental health.
  • Luckily there are treatment and coping strategies available to help you manage chronic pain.

Pain is a natural response caused by your brain after it receives messages from your nerves that you’re injured or something is wrong in your body. Usually, the pain goes away once the body is restored to its normal healthy state, however, some people continue to feel pain even after the initial cause is resolved. When pain lasts for months, this is known as chronic pain and it’s a lot more common than you may think.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 50 million adults in the U.S. are living with chronic pain. Not only can it be physically painful, but it can also affect your mental health too, leading to complications like anxiety and depression. While chronic pain can be challenging to treat, it’s not impossible and there are ways to cope. Here’s what you need to know about chronic pain, including the common signs, causes, and treatment options.

Chronic Pain vs. Acute Pain: What Is the Difference?

So how do you know when you have chronic pain? According to the Cleveland Clinic, chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts for longer than 3-months. Sometimes the pain is constant, and other times it may come and go. Chronic pain can also occur anywhere in your body.

Furthermore, chronic pain typically interferes with your daily life. For example, the source says chronic pain may interfere with your social life or ability to work. Acute pain, on the other hand, develops after getting hurt, such as breaking a bone and it doesn’t usually last long. This type of pain also goes away after your body heals whereas chronic pain can continue even after you recover from the cause, such as injury or illness. Sometimes chronic pain can have no obvious causes.

Common Types of Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can occur anywhere in the body and it can come in many forms. The Cleveland Clinic says some common types of chronic pain include arthritis or joint pain, back pain, and neck pain.

If you have cancer, it’s also common to experience pain near the tumor. Other common types of chronic pain include headaches, migraines, pain from scar tissue, and neurogenic pain from damaged nerves.


Common Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can be felt in many different ways. Sometimes it’s presented as a burning or shooting pain while other times it may be a throbbing or stinging pain. It may also feel like stiffness or aches.

Healthline points out that in some cases chronic pain can be constant but there may also be flares of more intense pain, which is typically induced by stress or activity. Joint pain and muscle aches can also be signs of chronic pain.

Other Possible Symptoms

Chronic pain doesn’t only affect your physical health, it can affect your mental health, causing additional symptoms. For example, chronic pain may lead to sleeping problems such as insomnia. You may also experience fatigue or mood swings.

The Cleveland Clinic says chronic pain may also lead to stress, anxiety, or depression. If the pain is affecting your daily activities you may also experience a loss of flexibility or stamina from the decreased activity.

What Causes Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain can be caused by a variety of illnesses, conditions, and even poor habits. For example, WebMD points out that chronic back pain may be caused by years of poor posture, improper lifting of heavy objects, being overweight, or a traumatic injury.

An underlying condition can also be the culprit of chronic pain. Healthline says some of these include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia. Cancer, surgical trauma, and inflammatory bowel disease can also cause chronic pain.

The source also points out that sometimes when these conditions improve, people still experience chronic pain. This is “caused by a miscommunication between the brain and nervous system,” explains Healthline. Chronic pain may change the way neurons act which can make them “hypersensitive to pain messages.”

Who’s At Risk?

Certain factors may increase your risk for chronic pain, such as genetics or age. For example, it’s common for migraines to run in families. As you grow older you’re more at risk for experiencing chronic pain from arthritis and neuropathy, says the Cleveland Clinic.

Other risk factors include a previous injury, a labor-intensive occupation, chronic stress, and smoking. Being obese may also increase your risk as extra weight can put stress on the body and make some conditions worse. While more research is still needed, Healthline also says having depression may increase your risk for chronic pain because depression “changes the way the brain receives and interprets messages from the nervous system.”

Chronic Pain Syndrome vs. Fibromyalgia: What’s the Difference?

Chronic pain and fibromyalgia can often occur together but there are distinct differences that set these two conditions apart. For starters, Healthline points out that fibromyalgia doesn’t typically have a known cause whereas chronic pain usually has an identifiable cause.

The source also notes that fibromyalgia affects how the nerves sense and relay pain messages. And even when fibromyalgia is treated, the pain can still be chronic which is why it can lead to chronic pain syndrome.

How Is Chronic Pain Diagnosed?

Generally, pain becomes chronic once it lasts or recurs for more than 3-months. The Cleveland Clinic points out that pain is typically a symptom of an underlying health problem so your doctor will do what they can to diagnose the cause.

Luckily, there are a variety of tests available to help diagnose a cause. Your doctor will likely start with a physical exam to determine the location of the pain, how much pain you’re in, and how often it occurs. If a cause isn’t diagnosed through a physical exam then the Cleveland Clinic says your doctor may order one of these tests:

  • Blood tests
  • Imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or X-ray
  • Electromyography to test muscle activity
  • Reflex and balance tests
  • Urine tests
  • Nerve conduction tests to determine if your nerves are reacting properly
  • Spinal fluid tests

Can Chronic Pain Be Cured?

The Cleveland Clinic says there is currently no cure for chronic pain. That said, your doctor will aim to identify the cause and treat that. The source notes arthritis as an example. Sometimes when you treat arthritis it can stop the joint pain. However, in many cases, the cause of chronic pain is unknown. This means it’s challenging to find a cure.

Luckily, there are treatment strategies available that can help decrease your symptoms to improve your daily life. So, if you’re experiencing chronic pain, be sure to contact your doctor. Your medical team will determine the best treatment plan for your condition.

Treating Chronic Pain

Left untreated, chronic pain can lead to serious complications, such as a decreased quality of life, anxiety, and depression. It may also cause the existing chronic disease to worsen. It’s important to work with your medical team to establish a treatment plan.

Your doctor will try to find the underlying cause that is causing the pain and first treat that. They’ll also likely prescribe pain-relieving medication to help ease your symptoms. Treatment may also involve therapy and lifestyle adjustments which we’ll get into more detail next.

Treatment: Therapy

According to the Cleveland Clinic, certain types of therapy may help you manage your symptoms. For starters, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be effective because this type of talk therapy helps you change the way you think and behave. Ultimately, it may help you learn how to cope with your condition. Counseling is another form of talk therapy that can help you manage the pain, especially psychogenic pain, says the source.

If your chronic pain is interfering with your daily activities, occupational therapy may be necessary. This type of therapy “teaches you how to do everyday tasks differently to lessen pain or avoid injury.” Finally, physical therapy may also be an effective treatment strategy as it teaches you how to stretch and strengthen your body, which may help reduce the pain.

Treatment: Lifestyle Adjustments

Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle adjustments as a part of your treatment plan. For starters, you may need to manage your stress as stress can play a role in chronic pain. Some effective ways to reduce stress include meditation, breathing exercises, and practicing mindfulness.

Daily exercise is also an important part of a healthy lifestyle but it may also help you manage your pain. The key here is to participate in low-intensity exercises such as walking or swimming. After all, you don’t want to make your pain worse. Furthermore, the Cleveland Clinic says a healthy diet, rich in anti-inflammatory foods may be beneficial, and getting good quality sleep every night may also help you manage your pain.

How to Cope With Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can take a serious toll on your daily life and your mental health. Luckily, along with your treatment plan, there are other coping strategies you can try to help you manage the pain.

The American Psychological Association says positive thinking is a powerful tool in helping you cope. Try to focus on the positives, such as the improvements you are making. Distracting yourself by engaging in activities and spending time with friends and family is another effective way to help you cope. The source says you should also consider support groups as they can help you feel less alone.

Finally, in some cases, a professional is needed. If your condition is overwhelming and is causing you to withdraw from daily activities and the people you love then working with a mental health professional (such as a psychologist) may be necessary.


Patty is a freelance health writer and nurse (BSN, CCRN). She has worked as a critical care nurse for over 10 years and loves educating people about their health. When she's not working, Patty enjoys any outdoor activity that she can do with her husband and three kids.

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