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Chronic pain affects millions of people worldwide. Unlike acute pain, which is a normal response to an injury or illness and typically subsides as healing occurs, chronic pain persists for extended periods and can significantly impact a person’s quality of life.
In this article, we’ll explore a mind-body approach to chronic pain management, focusing on understanding its root causes, effective coping strategies, and training the brain to alleviate suffering.
What is the Number One Cause of Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain stems from various factors, with a unifying feature being the persistence of pain signals in the nervous system long after the initial injury has healed. For three out of every ten individuals in the United States, living with chronic and long-term pain is an undeniable reality.
Chronic pains can manifest for various reasons, stemming from injuries or underlying illnesses. When discomfort extends beyond the three to six-month mark, treatment shifts its focus toward the central nervous system, encompassing the brain and spinal cord.
The primary causes of chronic discomfort encompass a spectrum of contributors, including medical conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and neuropathy, which can induce ongoing discomfort. Past injuries or surgical procedures may also lead to chronic pains due to nerve damage or persistent inflammation.
Lifestyle factors, including poor posture, obesity, and insufficient physical activity, can play a significant role in chronic pain development. Additionally, emotional factors such as stress, anxiety, and depression can have an increased risk of exacerbating existing discomfort or be a root cause themselves. Furthermore, genetic predispositions can render some individuals more susceptible to chronic pain conditions.
Research indicates strong connections between chronic pain, substance use disorders (SUDs), and mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Certain studies indicate that the more intense the pain, the more significant the associated challenges. Hence, discovering an effective treatment for chronic pain becomes crucial. However, this journey is intricate and individualized.
What effectively addresses one person’s chronic low back pain might not provide relief for another individual dealing with osteoarthritis. Several factors contribute to this variability. The underlying cause of chronic pains, along with a person’s unique biology and medical history, all factor into the management of your discomfort.
A crucial step in effectively managing chronic pain is to identify what kind of pain you have and comprehend its underlying cause.
Different Types of Pain
There exist five primary categories of pain, yet the complexity arises from the fact that certain types of pain may fall into more than one category.
Acute pain is characterized by its relatively brief duration, typically lasting from minutes to around three months, sometimes extending up to six months. It is often associated with soft-tissue injuries or temporary illnesses, and it generally diminishes once the injury has healed or the illness has resolved.
However, if the underlying injury fails to heal properly or if pain signals become dysfunctional, acute pains resulting from an injury can progress into chronic pains.
Chronic pain, in contrast, endures for an extended period. It can manifest as a constant presence or intermittently. For instance, persistent pain conditions like chronic headaches may persist over many months or even years, even if the discomfort isn’t consistently present.
Chronic pains are frequently attributed to underlying health conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, or spinal issues.
Neuropathic pain arises from damage to nerves or other components of the nervous system. It is frequently characterized by sensations such as shooting, stabbing, or burning pain, and can often be likened to the feeling of pins and needles.
Additionally, it may alter sensitivity to touch and hinder the ability to perceive hot or cold sensations. This type of pain is a prevalent form of chronic discomfort. It can be sporadic, coming and going, and at times, its intensity can be so severe that it impedes everyday activities.
Due to its capacity to disrupt normal movement, this type of pain can also result in mobility issues.
Nociceptive pain, in contrast, arises from damage to bodily tissues. Individuals commonly characterize it as sharp, achy, or throbbing discomfort. It is frequently a result of external injuries.
For instance, when you accidentally hit your elbow, stub your toe, twist your ankle, or endure a fall that leaves your knee scraped, you are likely to experience nociceptive pain.
This form of pain is often felt in areas such as joints, muscles, skin, tendons, and bones, and it can manifest both as acute or chronic pains.
Radicular pain is a highly specific type of discomfort that can arise when a spinal nerve becomes compressed or inflamed. This pain extends from the back and hip, coursing into the leg or legs through the spine and the root of the spinal nerve.
Individuals suffering from radicular pain may encounter sensations of tingling, numbness, and muscle weakness. When the discomfort radiates from the back into the leg, it’s referred to as radiculopathy.
It is commonly recognized as sciatica, primarily attributed to the involvement of the sciatic nerve. Typically, this type of pain maintains a consistent presence, and individuals often feel it deep within the leg.
Activities such as walking, sitting, and certain other movements can exacerbate sciatica, making it one of the most prevalent forms of radicular pains.
How Do You Cope with Chronic Pain?
The treatment of chronic pain requires a multifaceted approach, including medical treatment, lifestyle changes, and psychological support to give pain relief to a patient.
Complementary and alternative medicine may be used to treat various chronic and persistent pain, including over-the-counter or prescription medication, physical therapy, and less utilized treatments, such as surgery.
Consult with a healthcare professional or pain specialist to explore pain medicine, physical therapy, or other medical treatments tailored to your condition for pain management.
Physical therapy (PT) involves exercises that stretch and strengthen your body, which can help reduce persistent discomfort. It’s a valuable method for recovering from different medical situations, like heart and lung issues, aging-related problems, childhood ailments, skin conditions, nerve-related troubles, and musculoskeletal problems.
When it comes to easing chronic pain, neurologic PT and orthopedic PT are the go-to options. Physical therapists use various hands-on techniques to enhance patients’ mobility, strength, and overall function. They also teach exercises and movements that help patients feel and function better.
It’s worth noting that many of the commonly used PT treatments don’t have strong scientific proof of their effectiveness. For example, reviews from the Cochrane Collaboration have found mixed evidence regarding a widely used PT method called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation in managing various types of pain.
However, PT interventions are appealing because they are non-surgical, carry a low risk of harm or dependency, and encourage patients to actively participate in their own recovery. Physical therapy to ease pain and relieve tension typically encompasses manipulation, stretching routines, and pain-relief exercises.
Physical therapy is typically administered by a licensed physiotherapist, chiropractor, osteopath, or occasionally, an occupational therapist. These professionals can offer guidance on appropriate exercises and activities tailored to your specific needs, aiding in the management of persistent aching.
Alternative Pain Management
Individuals dealing with chronic pain have the option to consider hot and cold therapy, a widely used and safe method to relieve pain. Heat therapy serves to relax muscles and expand blood vessels, promoting post-injury healing.
Conversely, cold therapy is effective in reducing blood flow and mitigating inflammation, a common source of discomfort. Typically, this involves applying an ice pack wrapped in a towel directly to the skin.
There is also drug therapy using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a group of medications that reduce inflammation and pain.
Using over-the-counter painkillers to treat chronic pain and stay active is generally safe. However, it’s crucial to use them responsibly due to potential side effects. For adults, the simplest and safest painkiller is paracetamol.
Anti-inflammatory tablets like ibuprofen can also be considered by adults, provided they don’t have conditions that make them unsuitable, such as a stomach ulcer.
It’s essential to take painkillers at the recommended dose and on a regular schedule, every 4 to 6 hours, especially when dealing with a pain flare-up or preparing for an upcoming activity.
Waiting until the ache becomes severe is less effective. If a two-week course of over-the-counter painkillers doesn’t provide relief, it’s advisable to seek assistance from your GP or pharmacist.
Opioids and opioid therapy are effective in managing pain but are typically suitable for short-term use due to their potential for opioid addiction.
Because of this, healthcare providers usually try other pain treatment options before prescribing opioids. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, individuals should consider opioid use only when the benefits clearly outweigh the associated risks.
Furthermore, the efficacy of this treatment for chronic pain remains uncertain, as opioids are typically prescribed for brief durations, and limited evidence supports their long-term effectiveness.
No study has ever shown that opioids eliminate chronic pain, other than in the very short term, so efforts to achieve a zero pain level with opioids will fail while subjecting the patient to potentially intoxicating doses of the medication.
Amitriptyline, a medicine used to treat depression, can be beneficial in alleviating pain. At lower doses, amitriptyline is often prescribed for chronic pain conditions like diabetic neuropathy and fibromyalgia.
Many tricyclic antidepressants help with anxiety. Trazodone, which is also an anxiety reliever, is used as a sedative when benzodiazepine-like drugs are not preferred.
Using medications that treat multiple conditions and reduce pain can cut down on taking many drugs, avoid drug interactions, help with sticking to the treatment plan, and sometimes save on costs.
However, it may take 2 to 4 weeks for the effects of the medication to become noticeable. Potential side effects of amitriptyline include dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, and headaches.
Beta-blockers are medications that reduce heart rate and inhibit hormones like adrenaline. They are sometimes employed in the treatment of migraines.
Recent research indicates that low doses of beta-blockers can offer temporary relief for chronic pains in females dealing with fibromyalgia and temporomandibular syndrome.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that beta-blockers may not be a suitable option for everyone. Before considering their use for chronic pains, it’s advisable to consult with a medical professional.
Medicinal cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD) have become more prevalent in the realm of pain management. According to a 2017 review, cannabis shows potential to alleviate discomfort in the nerves or other components of the nervous system, although it may not be as effective for conditions like fibromyalgia, headaches, or rheumatoid arthritis.
It’s important to note that the use of medicinal cannabis may not be legally permitted in all areas. Additionally, high doses can lead to side effects, so it is advisable to consult a healthcare provider before considering cannabis or CBD for pain relief.
Maintain a healthy weight, engage in regular exercise, and ensure good posture to reduce pain.
Emotional and physical pains are closely related, and persistent discomfort can lead to increased levels of stress.
Learning healthy stress management can position you to manage pain and cope more effectively with your condition. Eating well, keeping a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, and engaging in approved physical activity are all positive ways for you to reduce stress and lead a fulfilling life.
Techniques such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation can improve physical and mental well-being, reducing pain. Therapeutic exercise can have long-term benefits for persistent pain, including helping people cope. Techniques may involve massage, exercise plans, and red light therapy.
Connect with friends, family, or support groups to share experiences and receive emotional support.
Seeking counseling can be a valuable step in improving your coping mechanisms and steering clear of negative thought patterns that make the pain worse.
If you continue to feel overwhelmed by your chronic pain level that keeps you from performing your daily routine, you may want to talk with a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, who can help you handle the physical and psychological repercussions of your condition.
Engaging in cognitive-behavioral therapy with a certified mental health professional can effectively alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and various other mental and physical health issues.
It enables you to cultivate a healthier perspective, promoting emotional well-being. It’s important to remember that seeking help is an act of strength, not a sign of weakness.
How Do You Train Your Brain to Stop Chronic Pain?
Engaging the mind-body connection is a potent approach to managing chronic pain. To train your brain in alleviating discomfort, various strategies can be employed. Mindfulness meditation promotes a heightened focus on the present moment, diminishing the prominence of your condition in your awareness.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) aids in recognizing and transforming detrimental thought patterns linked to pain. Biofeedback teaches you to regulate physiological responses, including muscle tension and heart rate, which can contribute to increased pain.
Visualization and guided imagery techniques empower you to envision a pain-free state, reducing the perception of it. Additionally, integrating relaxation techniques, like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, aids in alleviating muscle tension and ache reduction.
These combined strategies empower individuals to effectively manage and reduce chronic pain by harnessing the mind-body connection.
What are Positive Coping Statements for Chronic Pain?
Using positive coping statements can be a valuable strategy to manage chronic pain. These statements can help reframe your thoughts and emotions, reducing the intensity of your pain. Here are some examples:
- “I am in control of my pain, not the other way around.”
- “I have the strength to face this challenge and find relief.”
- “I will focus on what I can do, not what I can’t.”
- “I am resilient, and I can adapt to the changes chronic pain brings.”
- “I will find joy and purpose in my life despite my discomfort.”
Managing chronic pain requires a holistic approach that considers the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of the condition.
By understanding the root causes of chronic pain, developing effective coping strategies, and training the brain to alleviate suffering, individuals can regain control over their lives and experience a significant reduction in chronic pain’s impact.
Remember, with the right approach and support, there is hope for a more comfortable and fulfilling life despite chronic pain.