Understanding chronic pain
Millions of people suffer every year from chronic pain, defined as persistent pain that lasts longer than six months.
According to the National Institute of Health, “acute pain is a normal sensation in the nervous system to alert you to possible injury and the need to take care of yourself; chronic pain is different. Chronic pain persists.” With chronic pain, pain signals keep firing for weeks, months and even years. Often, this affects the patient both emotionally and physically.
The most common chronic pain complaints include low back pain, headache, cancer pain, neurologic pain, arthritis pain, or psychogenic pain, i.e. pain not due to a past injury or any visible sign of damage inside or outside the nervous system. Often, there may have been an initial injury, trauma, or a serious infection that precipitated the pain episode. In other cases, pain is caused by degenerative conditions such as arthritis, stress to joints from sports or overuse (such as carpel tunnel syndrome), or pain from a debilitating illness like cancer.
Patients suffering from chronic pain often develop other conditions that affect their physical and emotional well being. Many withdraw from normal activities and may exhibit uncharacteristic mood changes, depression or anxiety. Sleeplessness is common in patients with chronic pain; others develop conditions like a weakened immune system.
A wide array of treatment options are available today for patients who suffer with chronic pain. A specialist in chronic pain may recommend a combination of medications along with other treatments. At a pain clinic, a team of physicians and clinicians evaluate each patient to determine the overall scope of the pain. A care plan is then developed to address both the physical aspects of the pain and the psychological toll the pain is taking on the patient.
To address the physical aspect of pain, patients may benefit from epidural blocks administered to block the transmission of pain messages along the nerve pathways. For joint pain, a physician may recommend an injection of cortisone or other drugs directly into the joint. Another option is a spinal cord stimulator, which delivers an impulse along the spinal cord that changes the way the brain perceives the painful signal. Relaxation techniques and counseling can also help patients deal with the emotional aspects of living with chronic pain. Physical therapy and surgery can also be effective.
The bottom line is, chronic pain should not be ignored. There is no reason for a patient to suffer when so many options are available to reduce or eliminate the feeling of pain.
Jennifer Gilbert, D.O., is board certified in anesthesiology and pain management and practices at Mount Nittany Pain Management Clinic, State College. For info call 814-237-3360 or visit mountnittany.org.