Most people have experienced the pain of a temporary headache, a paper cut, or a burn from the stove… but imagine if that kind of pain stuck around all day, every day. Unfortunately, chronic pain is a reality for one in five Australians. That’s a huge number – so whether you’re suffering from chronic pain yourself or know someone who is, it’s time to get informed.
Here are 8 things you may not have known about this condition.
1. Chronic pain is not just in the mind
Some people believe that chronic pain is all in the mind: it’s a result of being weak, an inability to deal with stress, or of anxiety and depression. This is a misconception. Physical experiences are created by the brain as a result of your brain believing it’s under threat and entering protective mode, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real experiences. Fear, anxiety, and depression can boost pain levels, but only after chronic pain has already occurred.
2. Chronic pain impacts the brain
Researchers are studying how chronic pain can impact the brain in order to develop new treatment options. One interesting insight is that in chronic pain sufferers, the thalamus – a gateway area between the spinal cord and higher brain centres – often remains open long after the healing of an acute injury. Under normal circumstances, this border closes automatically after healing. At the same time, the volume of the thalamus is reduced, and consequently, there’s a decline in gamma-aminobutyric acid, which is a neurotransmitter that helps to inhibit the transmission of nerve impulses. What all this means is that chronic pain patients experience an amplification of brain signals, which contributes to their pain.
Other research has shown that pain can impact the way a person perceives their own body. A study from the University of South Australia found that people with osteoarthritis were not very good at localising where they were being touched, or where their body parts were located in space. They also often perceive their body parts to be smaller than they are. This suggests that people with chronic pain process location-specific information differently.
3. Pain can occur without tissue damage
Some chronic pain sufferers believe they have pain because of tissue damage. In fact, you can have chronic pain without any tissue damage, and you can have tissue damage and not have any pain. The amount of pain you have doesn’t necessarily correspond to tissue damage. In many cases tissue damage has already healed but the patient still has chronic pain.
4. A scan may not help
Scans might be necessary in some cases, but usually an MRI, X-ray, or CT scan isn’t useful for diagnosing pain. In fact, MRIs are very sensitive and sometimes they detect things that don’t relate to the pain. Some scans might show damage to back discs or arthritis in the back, but the individual does not experience any pain at all.
5. Grinning and bearing it can make it worse
There’s no honour in being too stoic about your chronic pain. Grinning and bearing it rather than seeing a doctor can make the problem worse. It’s always best to seek advice if you have pain so that you can seek treatment rather than allowing the pain to progress.
6. Emotional support can help chronic pain sufferers
Emotional support can be very important for people suffering from chronic pain. For example, having a partner who responds helpfully or supportively to expressions of pain can encourage individuals to keep expressing their pain. If you know someone experiencing chronic pain, try expressing general care and concern rather than constantly discussing their pain. For example, ask “How are you today?” instead of “How’s your back pain today?”. Experts say this kind of emotional support can be critical for chronic pain sufferers.
7. There are a range of options to treat pain
Along with pain medication, there are a range of options for treating and managing pain. Always check with your healthcare provider if you have any doubts.
- Supervised exercise – An exercise program supervised by a qualified health professional may be able to assist with managing chronic pain.
- Behavioural therapy – Many chronic pain sufferers have a fear of movement. Behavioural therapy can be used to help with lowering or eliminating this fear.
- Mindfulness therapy – Mindfulness therapy can also be useful for patients who want to learn how to better deal mentally and emotionally with the pain. It focuses on helping the patient to acknowledge their pain, allow it to pass, and not focus on the negative consequences of the pain.
- Visual illusion – An innovative method for managing pain has been to use visual illusions. Researchers believe that these work by changing the danger signal that comes to the brain, which is the cause of pain. Experiments have shown that illusion therapies have a positive impact on arm pain and osteoarthritis.
Other options for managing pain include psychological techniques, physiotherapy, relaxation techniques, and improved sleep.
8. Most chronic pain patients can improve their pain management
Research shows that 80 per cent of individuals with chronic pain are not fully utilising treatment options that could improve their quality of life. In addition to exercise, therapy, and pain medication, chronic pain patients can discuss other options with their healthcare provider or doctor. Local hospitals may have a range of services or resources such as pain educators, educational assessments, and group pain management programs. If you have chronic pain, check with your doctor about taking full advantage of the different resources out there.
Disclaimer: The Herron blog is interested in general community wellbeing and information, and does not imply that Herron products should be used for serious ailments without the advice or recommendation of your healthcare practitioner.All information presented on the Herron website is meant for general knowledge and never meant as a diagnosis of prescription. Please always contact your doctor for health related matters.