If you have physical pain that lasts well beyond the normal healing time, you are not alone. One in five adults worldwide lives with one of the common types of chronic pain. The National Institutes of Health classifies chronic pain as pain that occurs on at least half of the days for a period of six months or more, although other sources define it as lasting three months or more.
Pain has an important purpose. It is a clue that something is going on in the body that needs our attention. However, chronic pain can go on to have wide-ranging, negative effects on our quality of life. Chronic pain increases a person’s risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Constant pain affects sleep, mood, brain function, and heart health. No one should live in pain. Effective treatments are available.
Learn more about the most common types of chronic pain and the benefits of physical therapy to your reduce symptoms and improve your life.
Pain begins in nerve receptor cells located under the skin and in organs throughout the body. If you get injured or sick, these cells send messages to along the nerve pathways to the spinal cord, which then sends messages to the brain.
Pain can be anything from a dull, minor ache to an intense, shooting pain. Acute pain has an obvious and direct cause, and it usually goes away once the problem is corrected. Let’s say you have a toothache. After the dentist performs a root canal and fills your cavity, your toothache should subside.
Chronic pain is more complex. It lasts well after you have recovered from an injury or illness. It can persist beyond the time frame of tissue healing. Sometimes chronic pain develops without an apparent associated cause. Chronic pain can come on and subside suddenly and unpredictably—or be ever-present. Chronic pain can be aching, stinging, throbbing, burning, or shooting pain. The pain can be in a small area or be widespread. Everyone’s experience with chronic pain is different.
Nearly everyone has had a headache at one time or another. There are several types of headaches, each with its own causes. They can be triggered by things like alcohol, stress, and sleep problems. Or they can be indicative of another medical condition.
Migraines are a type of severe headache that affects one in seven adults worldwide. People with chronic migraine pain experience headaches at least 15 days per month, often with other symptoms like nausea, throbbing pressure, and sensitivity to light and sound.
Low back pain can arise due to injury of any of the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, or tissues in the area.
Sprains, strains, and tears can leave residual pain long after they heal or are surgically repaired. The intervertebral disks that cushion the vertebrae of the spine are susceptible to injury, disease, and degeneration, which can result in chronic back pain that makes walking, sitting, and standing difficult.
Some people experience chronic back pain as a symptom of sciatica, a condition caused when the sciatic nerve that travels from the lower back down into each leg becomes compressed through illness or injury.
Spinal stenosis is another condition linked to chronic back pain. Stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces in the spine, which puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots. Someone with spinal stenosis may have numbness, tingling, or cramping in the legs or feet in addition to chronic back pain.
Pain in the joints that connect bones together is one of the leading causes of chronic pain among adults in this country. Injury, infection, and aging all potentially cause pain in one or multiple joints in the body.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, arthritis is the leading cause of disability in this country, affecting more than 60 million adults and 300,000 children. There are more than 100 types of arthritis and arthritis-related conditions that cause joint pain, inflammation, and stiffness.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. Known as the “wear and tear” disease, osteoarthritis is a condition where the thick, rubbery cartilage that cushions the bones breaks down through overuse, injury, or aging. Chronic joint pain can be debilitating and causes many people to limit their work and leisure activities.
Chronic pain can literally be a “pain in the neck.” Chronic neck pain affects the area in and around the spine below the head, or the cervical spine. Some people experience chronic pain in the cervical spine and radicular pain that radiates to the shoulders, arms, and other areas of the body.
Neck pain has several possible causes including some of the conditions mentioned above: arthritis, disk problems, stenosis, and headaches. Cervicogenic headaches account for around 15%-20% of all headaches. This type of headache is not actually a pain in the head at all. It is cervical pain that is perceived in the head. Cervicogenic headaches can develop following a whiplash injury. Neck pain can also be the result of “text neck”, named for the craning of the head over mobile phones and other screens which can lead to pain from poor posture.
Among people living with chronic pain, one in five has neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain is nerve pain caused by damage or compression of nerves or other parts of the nervous system. Some medications also cause chronic nerve pain by deteriorate the outer coating (myelin sheath) that protects the nerves.
Neuropathy is injury to the peripheral nerves from the use of certain medications used to fight or manage high blood pressure, infections, autoimmune disease, and some cancers. Diabetic neuropathy, sciatica, and carpal tunnel syndrome are all examples of neuropathic pain conditions. Chronic nerve pain may be accompanied by numbness and loss of sensation in the affected area.
Very often, chronic pain is not an isolated symptom. People with chronic pain may have additional physical, mental, and emotional challenges that impact their quality of life. Chronic pain syndrome (CPS) is not one but a “constellation” of symptoms that does not respond to a formulaic model of care.
Instead, CPS requires a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment that addresses the following symptoms:
• Joint pain
• Aching muscles
• Sleep problems
• Loss of flexibility and stamina
• Anxiety, depression, and other mood problems
Anyone with chronic pain, particularly females, people with obesity, smokers, and those over 65 have an elevated risk of developing CPS.
Chronic pain and CPS require a comprehensive treatment plan to address the underlying condition and accompanying pain, stiffness, inflammation, and mobility and flexibility issues. Individuals with chronic pain may benefit from a combination of medication, lifestyles changes, and natural, alternative treatments and techniques like meditation, massage, acupuncture, and physical therapy.
Physical therapy is widely-recommended for people with chronic pain because it goes beyond simply easing or managing discomfort. A physical therapist addresses the root cause of why the patient feels pain. Physical therapists are neuromusculoskeletal experts who can address a wide range of impairments and functional limitations.
Exercise is used a tool to reduce pain and fear of movement and to improve a patient’s mobility and function. Physical therapy also incorporates heat and ice therapy and hands on treatment as needed for pain relief. Physical therapists educate patients on why pain occurs and provide strategies for walking, standing, lifting, and sleeping without pain. Is chronic pain impacting your life? Find a physical therapy clinic near you.