What is chronic pain?

This week is National Pain Week, an initiative to raise awareness about life with chronic pain – also known as the ‘invisible challenge’.

Chronic Pain Australia (CPA) estimates that around 8 million Australians silently endure constant pain, with almost 30 per cent of sufferers aged over 66. However, CPA says it is an ‘endemic’ that doesn’t discriminate, affecting both young and old – and according to the 2011 Pfizer Health Report on Chronic Pain, about 80 per cent are currently missing out on treatment. Why?

“The community’s understanding of and response to chronic pain is similar to where depression and other mental health conditions were 20 years ago,” said CPA president Dr Coralie Wales.

“People who live with pain carry an extra burden. They are often stigmatised, isolated, suffer depression and feel others don’t understand their condition.”

So, what exactly is chronic pain? And what can you do about it?

What makes pain ‘chronic’?
Everyone experiences physical pain at some point in their lives, but most people would expect it to go away with time and treatment. ‘Acute’ pain is a short-term symptom that indicates damage or injury to the body; chronic pain lasts longer and usually reflects an overactive or sensitised nervous system, often triggered by some illness or trauma. This is where the problem becomes complex.

Chronic pain takes many forms – from back pain and migraines through to trauma from an injury, nerve damage or illnesses such as shingles and cancer. Pain also plays a large part in neurological, musculoskeletal and autoimmune conditions, such as fibromyalgia, lupus, MS and arthritis. There are many possible causes of long-term pain, but all require – and deserve – treatment to minimise the distress of sufferers and their families. When left unmanaged, chronic pain can be detrimental to both physical and mental health.

How is it treated?
Because pain perception is difficult to measure, and every person experiences it differently, there is no ‘one size fits all’ treatment. Management of chronic pain often requires a multi-faceted approach, which can include medicines, exercise, physical treatments, dietary changes, cognitive behavioural therapy and relaxation techniques.

However, if you are experiencing pain, the best place to start is with your doctor. CPA recommends taking a list of questions to ask your GP, such as:

  • What do you think is causing my pain?
  • What are my treatment choices? Are there any side effects?
  • Why should I have that test?
  • What can I do to help myself?
  • How regularly should I see you?
  • Who can I contact if I have questions?

You can visit National Pain Week for more information and resources.

Do you experience chronic pain? Have you found any strategies to manage your symptoms?

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Written by Louise Baxter

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