Acute pain can be a normal reaction to an injury, surgery or certain medical conditions such as infection or inflammation. Chronic pain is different. It may have started with an injury or illness, but chronic pain can also be the result of an ongoing disease such as cancer or arthritis. It can even start without a known cause or obvious injury. The American Chronic Pain Association defines chronic pain as pain that continues a month or longer after normal recovery time for an injury or illness, or pain that continues for months or years as a result of a chronic condition.
Some of the most common areas for chronic pain are back, neck, head and peripheral nerves.
Living with chronic pain can have an enormous impact on your life. You may be more likely to feel depressed, exhausted and hopeless. Maybe the medications or surgeries you've tried have not worked. Maybe you fear that others don't understand, or that you are a burden on your family and friends.
You are not alone. About 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. That's more than the total affected by cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined.
If you feel yourself taking a back seat to your pain, there are ways you can get behind the wheel again — with some effort and patience. Start by meeting with your doctor to develop a plan for managing your pain. Important concerns to address include medications, exercise and any activities you should limit or avoid.
Once your doctor approves a plan, here are some ideas from the American Chronic Pain Association, to help you live a richer, less pain-filled life:
- Study your pain. Learn everything you can about your pain and what may cause it. Be an active member of your health care team. Follow their advice and ask how you can begin to do more for yourself.
- Decide what's important. Think about your priorities. What are the things you want to do in your life? Focusing on these, rather than on your limitations, may help give you more energy.
- Choose reasonable goals. Becoming stronger or more active takes time. Maybe you want to be able to take a short walk or lift your grandchildren. Whatever it is, give yourself targets to reach for, but take small steps to get there. And don't forget to celebrate your progress.
- Stand up for yourself. You have a right to say "no" without feeling guilty. You have a right to do less if you need to. You don't have to justify your decisions to other people. You have a right to be treated with respect.
- Acknowledge your feelings. Emotions have a direct effect on our physical bodies. Be aware of how you're feeling. You may be able to lessen your stress.
- Relax. When we are stressed out, pain increases for some people. Relaxation exercises may help you better manage the pain. Such exercises may include deep breathing, visualization and other techniques.
- Get moving. You probably feel like exercise is the last thing you can do when you are in pain. You may be afraid that it will cause you to hurt even more. But stiff, unused muscles feel more pain than muscles that are toned and flexible. With your doctor's help, you can begin an exercise program that fits your needs. You may feel better about yourself and have less pain as your strength grows.
- Change your focus. As you begin to make steps to improve your life, you may see that pain does not need to be the center of your world. Choose to focus on your abilities, not your disabilities. Your attitude can make a difference.
- Reach out. Find a support group. Talk to others who are facing similar challenges. Share your feelings about what it's like to live with chronic pain — this may help curb loneliness, isolation and depression. You can share what you've learned with others and learn from them.
Created on 11/26/2003
Updated on 03/07/2013
- American Chronic Pain Association. FAQ: What is chronic pain?
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Chronic pain information page.
- National Institutes of Health. Depression and chronic pain.
- American Chronic Pain Association. Ten steps from patient to person.