Pain is an unpleasant experience in the body. Acute pain is a message in the body warning about danger, whereas chronic pain can have much more complex origins and functions. The nervous system is used to transmit signals around the body to indicate pain.
Many people think that chronic pain means extreme pain. Although chronic pain can be really severe, ‘”chronic” actually refers to how long the pain lasts rather than how severe it is.
Acute pain is the pain many of us have experienced from time to time. We hurt ourselves (cut, pull, strain), experience pain, then heal and the pain goes away. That’s “normal”. Chronic pain is not in this category.
Chronic or persistent pain is pain that lasts for more than three months, or in many cases, beyond normal healing time. It doesn’t obey the same rules as acute pain. It can be seen as somewhat of a mystery. It can be caused by ongoing disease states like arthritis in all its forms, cancer, lupus, multiple sclerosis or any of a myriad of conditions. It can be a consequence of trauma (e.g. surgery, car or work accident, a fall). It can be a consequence of a minor injury which leaves ongoing pain. Sometimes the long term nature of the pain is not indicating ongoing disease or damage.
The point is that the longer pain persists, the more complex it becomes. Even if it is caused by a disease, it now involves multiple body systems beyond the nervous system. The endocrine (hormone) system, the gut and other body systems start to become involved.
Chronic Pain depends on “context”
Chronic pain can be influenced by what is happening in a person’s life at any particular time. Many people have shared stories about how extreme the pain is when dealing with negative situations in life. A classic example is when someone living with chronic pain has difficult dealings with insurance companies – arguments and conflicts tend to make pain worse. On the other hand, many people in chronic pain share stories about finding some temporary respite when with good friends, grandkids, having a laugh, feeling loved and cared about.
What is pain management?
Many people live with chronic pain 24/7. It is debilitating, exhausting and has an impact on all parts of a person’s life. Living like this takes courage and strength and could be referred to as “putting up with” the pain. The pain is in control and unpredictable.
Some people however have described learning new techniques for “managing” their pain. These folk share stories about gradually taking control of their pain and being able to return to meaningful, pleasurable and enjoyable activities in life with a pain reduction. The following section describes what those people have shared with Chronic Pain Australia.
The pain journey
We asked people in pain to help us develop a big picture overview of what is involved in the pain journey. It is not simple, as pain is a highly complex and individual experience.