Living With Chronic Pain

Chronic pain for many can become a way of life, and the worst part is that it isn’t commonly curable. But with the right help, there are good odds you can learn to manage this pain and minimize its impact on your life.

So, what is chronic pain?

Pain is a normal and healthy part of life (although, not a pleasant part). Acute pain is our body's warning system, telling us to take our hand off a burning surface or to go to the doctor to make sure it is not a symptom of underlying disease.

But chronic pain is a different matter altogether. Usually defined as pain that persists for three months or more, it is often triggered by an episode of acute pain (such as that caused by an injury or surgery) but persists long after the original tissue damage has healed.

A staggering one in five Australians of working age lives with chronic pain, at an estimated cost to the economy of $34 billion a year. Although chronic pain can be associated with an ongoing condition, such as cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, in most cases there is no obvious physical cause and no cure. Desperate patients can end up going from one specialist to another in the futile search for a solution.

It’s all in the brain

People with chronic pain are often told it's all in their mind, but the truth that it usually is related to your brain. 

Our brains and nervous system have an outstanding ability to rewire themselves in response to new experiences and challenges. This can be a positive thing, allowing us to build new connections to take over everyday tasks after a brain injury, for example.

But not all new pathways are helpful. Some new pathways formed after an injury or other trauma can communicate pain. And, if an episode of acute pain is not adequately managed, those new connections may never switch off, continuing to transmit the pain message even after the original injury has healed.

Incorporating physical and mental therapy

Although chronic pain is notoriously difficult to "cure", a multidisciplinary approach in a specialist pain clinic has been shown to help about 80 per cent of patients achieve effective management of the condition.

Specially trained physiotherapists and clinical psychologists can help to address the physical, psychological and environmental aspects of pain over a period of time.

Physical therapy can also assist in addressing postural problems and strengthening muscles that have become weak through reduced activity.

What you can do

It may seem like a contradiction, but accepting your pain is the best way to move forward.

Once doctors have completed the necessary tests to make sure there is not an underlying physical problems, it’s time to find and work on the pain management side of things.

Perhaps the most important is to educate yourself about the condition. It is also important to resume normal activities as much as possible, rather than spending your time in bed. 

The fear of re-injury often leads to a downward spiral as the more inactive you become, the more pain you can experience. Inactivity leads to a loss of muscle tone and strength, making people less capable of activity and more likely to find it painful.

It's worth experimenting with different methods of reducing pain so that the resumption of normal activities is made easier Most will benefit from relaxation techniques such as meditation, provided they practise them regularly (ideally several times a day) as well as both ongoing mental and physical therapies. 

There may be no quick-fix solution, but it is possible to learn to manage pain and improve your quality of life dramatically.