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What Causes Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain is pain that lasts for at least 12 weeks. Learn about the causes, risk factors, and treatments for chronic pain.

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What Is Chronic Pain?

Pain, though unpleasant, is your body’s warning system. The tingling, tightness, or stiffness indicates that overworked or damaged muscles and nerves need attention. Prolonged pain—lasting three months or longer—is considered chronic. Chronic pain strikes any place in the body, most commonly in the lower back, and ranges from mild to severe. It can be sharp, shooting, burning, aching, or marked by stiffness. While pain following injury or disease is normal, persistent pain can affect your personal and professional life.

Chronic pain can take a toll on you emotionally as well as physically. The emotional stress can further aggravate symptoms, and possibly weaken your immune system, which could lead to infection, fatigue, or depression.

Chronic Pain Triggers

Approximately one in three people in the United States will experience chronic pain, which can last for weeks, months, or years. Root causes that contribute to chronic pain include:

  • Chemical: If the brain chemicals that usually suppress pain fail to work, this could lead to ongoing pain.  
  • Neurogenic: This kind of pain results from damage to the central nervous system, in which damaged nerves are the source of pain.
  • Psychogenic: An emotional or mental issue—rather than disease, injury, or damage to the nervous system—could trigger the perception of intractable pain.
  • Psychological: Pain could be the result of personality traits or psychiatric illness that manifests as physical pain
  • Unidentifiable: When tests cannot find any instance of injury or illness that could have triggered the chronic pain, doctors might not be able to identify a cause.

Chronic Pain Risk Factors

Identifying the risk factors of chronic pain can help you manage or prevent symptoms.

  • Age: Chronic pain is not a normal part of aging, but conditions like arthritis and diabetes (which tend to appear with age) may contribute to chronic pain by causing joint and nerve destruction, respectively.
  • Health Conditions: Fibromyalgia, depression or anxiety disorders, joint injuries, limb amputation, and surgery are examples of chronic pain triggers.
  • Immune System: A weakened immune system can lead to infections or illness.
  • Smoking: Smoking can aggravate pain and reduce responsiveness to treatment.
  • Diet and Lifestyle: Indulging in junk foods, living a sedentary lifestyle, alcohol dependence, and other poor health habits can lead to chronic pain.
  • Emotional Stress: Relationship problems or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, can contribute to chronic pain.
Written by: Erica Cirino
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by:
Published: Mar 4, 2011
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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