The following is part 1 of 3 in a series covering the issue of Chronic Pain. See the bottom of this article for links to the rest of the series.

Chronic Pain Is Real, And It Can Ruin Your Life

Chronic pain is a condition that impacts almost everybody in some way. If you’re not experiencing it yourself, the odds are good someone you know is dealing with chronic pain every day. But what is chronic pain? Check out the video below for an introduction to the science behind chronic pain.

Pain is often described as acute or chronic. Acute pain is fairly easy to recognize – a sprained ankle, a cut, or stepping on a Lego. That pain makes sense. Chronic pain can seem a bit more mysterious, and a lot more frustrating. Chronic pain is defined in a couple of different ways. A very common way of defining chronic pain is when the pain lasts longer than 3-6 months. Another way to define chronic pain is pain that continues longer than normal tissue healing time. For example, it makes sense that if you break your leg, your leg will hurt. However, if your leg still hurts 6 months later, long after the bone and and other tissues are healed, you have a totally different situation. What’s really going on? The x-rays look good, you look good, everything seems ‘fine’…why do you still hurt?

Pain Is More Complex Than You Think

The short answer is pain is complex. Acute pain generally does a great job of protecting us and getting our attention. Step on that Lego? It’s good that you say “ouch” and draw your foot back. Accidentally touch something very hot? It’s good to register that as ‘dangerous’ and move your hand before you get burned! Pain gets your attention immediately and lets you decide if whatever you’re feeling is safe or not safe. Chronic pain is different. There are many different factors that can come together in chronic pain, and those factors are different for everyone. Sometimes thinking about the part of you that hurts can make the pain worse and sometimes being on vacation can make the pain go away completely! It’s not that your pain is “just in your head.” How you feel about your pain, your life, how your day is going…things like these can all greatly impact the amount of pain you’re experiencing on any given day.

It Is Your Brain That Decides What Is Painful, And What Is Not Painful

It is important to understand that chronic pain doesn’t show up on X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans. It is not diagnosed with EMGs, ultrasounds, or injections. Many of the most common pain medications don’t work on chronic pain, which can frustrate both you and your healthcare providers. An important first step is understanding that pain medication isn’t a good long term solution for chronic pain (as you’ll find out in Part 2). This will help you move towards options for care that are more effective and have fewer side effects.

Chronic pain shouldn’t be ignored. People suffering with chronic pain deserve to be heard and understood. Not all doctors are experts in chronic pain so it is important for you to be proactive and share your questions and concerns with your doctor or physical therapist. If you don’t feel that your questions and concerns are being addressed, it’s time to consider a new healthcare provider. If you’ve seen multiple specialists but not a physical therapist, we strongly suggest you consider it. There are many ways a physical therapist can help improve the quality of your life.

The series continues with Part 2 – Chronic Pain: The Opioid Epidemic, or you can go straight to Part 3 – Chronic Pain: Physical Therapy Can Help!

We will continuously update this page with further resources, links, and videos that help to explain what chronic pain is, and what it isn’t.