Pain is normal, and everyone experiences aches and pains from time to time. Pain is an essential reaction of the nervous system, and acute pain can alert you to a possible injury. When an injury occurs, pain signals travel from the injured area to the brain.
Pain usually becomes less severe as the injury heals. However, chronic pain is different. When an individual experiences chronic pain, the body sends pain signals to the brain, even after the wound has healed.
Chronic pain is the long-term experience of pain, where pain continues beyond a standard healing time. Chronic pain can restrict mobility and make it difficult to function in daily life. With therapy and pain management strategies, it is possible to manage chronic pain and improve your life quality.
Causes of Chronic Pain
Pain results from both psychological and physical factors. While chronic pain can occur for several reasons, it’s often related to injuries or chronic health conditions such as arthritis.
When a medical condition cannot explain chronic pain, research suggests that pain can result from oversensitivity within the nervous system. In such cases, the nervous system sends pain signals to the brain, even though the illness or injury has healed. Also, thoughts and feelings can influence pain perception.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 11% of adults in the United States experience daily pain. While chronic pain is more prevalent among older adults, individuals from any stage of life can experience long-term pain.
Types of Chronic Pain
The two main types of chronic pain are:
- Neuropathic pain: Neuropathic pain is associated with nerve damage, which sends faulty pain signals to the brain. Nerve damage can result from an injury or accident. In some cases, nerve damage occurs after surgery.
- Nociceptive pain: Nociceptive pain is associated with damage, disease, or injury that affects a part of the body outside of the nervous system. This type of chronic pain can be somatic (affecting muscles, bones, or skin, such as arthritis) or visceral (affecting internal organs, such as kidney disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
Chronic Pain and Mental Health
Chronic pain can cause significant psychological and emotional distress. For many people, chronic pain makes it difficult to function in daily life. In addition to chronic pain, some people experience symptoms of mental health conditions, such as:
- Somatic symptom disorder (SSD): Under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5), SSD is associated with physical symptoms that cause significant distress, as well as preoccupations, feelings, and behaviors about the symptoms.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome: Chronic fatigue syndrome is a chronic condition characterized by extreme fatigue that cannot be explained by an underlying medical condition. In some cases, chronic fatigue accompanies unexplained muscle or joint pain.
- Stress and anxiety: People with chronic pain may find that anxiety interferes with daily activities. Additionally, stress regarding pain, medical care, and medical costs, can further contribute to health problems. This can include high blood pressure and heart disease, and trigger muscle spasms or tension that increase pain.
- Sadness or depression: Chronic pain can interfere with daily life and social relationships, leading to feelings of sadness and depression.
- Self-esteem issues: Chronic pain conditions are often stigmatized. Inaccurate assumptions by loved ones and professionals within the medical community that the pain is “all in their head” can make individuals question themselves.
- Sleep problems: Chronic pain and discomfort can disrupt regular sleeping patterns. For example, chronic back pain can make it difficult for individuals to find a comfortable sleeping position. Difficulty sleeping can exacerbate stress, pain, and mental health problems.
- Substance use disorders: Some individuals with chronic pain conditions turn to alcohol, drugs, or opioids to manage pain. This can lead to addiction.
Treatment Options for Chronic Pain
If you’re experiencing chronic pain, don’t hesitate to consult your healthcare provider about the following treatment options:
- Therapy: In response to COVID-19, the United States Department of Health and Human Services expanded access to remote mental health and healthcare services under HIPAA. If you’re experiencing chronic pain, working with a mental health professional can help you address your pain’s physical and emotional components. For many people, therapy is an effective treatment for managing pain.
- Check-ups: Pain is functional and alerts the body to injuries or medical conditions. If you’re experiencing chronic pain, schedule a check-up with your health care provider to rule out chronic medical conditions and chronic illnesses that may contribute to your symptoms, and help you monitor your physical health. Depending on your situation and the type of pain, your healthcare provider may prescribe painkillers, such as opioids, to help manage the pain.
- Physical activity: If you’re struggling with pain, it can be tempting to avoid moving out of discomfort or fear of further damage. However, according to a recent study, regular exercise can help reduce chronic pain. Physical activity, such as walking, yoga, and swimming, stimulates the release of endorphins. According to the World Health Organization, physical activity can help lower risk factors for heart attacks and chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease.
- Complementary therapies: Acupuncture, massage therapy, and physical therapy may help individuals with chronic health conditions manage and reduce pain.
- Social support: Building a support system can help reduce stress and help you manage your pain. However, for individuals suffering from an invisible illness or disability, reaching out to friends or family members can feel intimidating. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your loved ones, consider joining a support group. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers numerous support groups for individuals with mental health disorders.
- Online resources: According to a systematic review, incorporating education in treatment for chronic pain management can lead to better long-term outcomes. The American Chronic Pain Association offers helpful information for individuals with chronic disease, acute pain, and invisible disabilities.
Therapy for Chronic Pain
Mental health treatment is an essential component of pain management. Working with a mental health provider can help you cope with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with chronic pain. Many types of therapy can help you improve your well-being and quality of life, including:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps individuals with chronic conditions change unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors that affect perceptions of pain.
- Mindfulness practices: Mindfulness helps individuals with chronic pain become aware of pain sensations without automatically reacting to pain signals as problematic.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): ACT integrates CBT, mindfulness and other strategies to promote acceptance and help individuals change their expectations toward pain.
To find a mental health provider, consider reaching out to a therapist through WithTherapy. WithTherapy’s unique matchmaking service will connect you to a healthcare professional you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of the mental health experts on the WithTherapy platform will help you address your pain’s psychological components while learning different ways to cope with chronic pain.