What Causes Chronic Pain?

From time to time, everyone experiences pain of one kind or another. Pain lets us know that something is wrong and we need to take some kind of action to protect our bodies.

Chronic pain is different because it doesn’t stop. It persists when you expect it to leave. Today we want to look at the types and causes of chronic pain and some important things that you can do to reduce chronic pain by dealing with stress.

First, let’s look at the types and causes of chronic pain.

Some of the most common types of chronic pain include:

  • headache
  • post-surgical pain
  • post-trauma pain
  • lower back pain
  • cancer pain
  • arthritis pain
  • neurogenic pain (pain caused by nerve damage)
  • psychogenic pain (pain that isn’t caused by disease, injury, or nerve damage)

According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, approximately 1.5 billion people around the world have chronic pain. It’s the most common cause of long-term disability in the United States, affecting about 100 million Americans.

What Causes Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is usually caused by an initial injury, such as a back sprain or pulled muscle. It’s believed that chronic pain develops after nerves become damaged. The nerve damage makes pain more intense and long lasting. In these cases, treating the underlying injury may not resolve the chronic pain.

In some cases, however, people experience chronic pain without any prior injury. The exact causes of chronic pain without injury aren’t well understood. The pain may sometimes be caused by an underlying health condition, such as:

  • chronic fatigue syndrome: characterized by extreme, prolonged weariness that’s often accompanied by pain
  • endometriosis: a painful disorder that occurs when the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus
  • fibromyalgia: widespread pain in the bones and muscles
  • inflammatory bowel disease: a group of conditions that causes painful, chronic inflammation in the digestive tract
  • interstitial cystitis: a chronic disorder marked by bladder pressure and pain
  • temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ): causes painful clicking, popping, or locking of the jaw
  • vulvodynia: chronic vulva pain that occurs with no obvious cause

Who Is at Risk for Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain can affect people of all ages, but it’s most common in older adults. Besides age, other factors that can increase your risk of developing chronic pain include:

  • having an injury
  • having surgery
  • being female
  • being overweight or obese

– via Healthline

Manage Stress and Improve Chronic Pain

Chronic pain causes stress. That is easy to believe. There are a variety of reasons and types of stress brought on by the need to deal with pain in an ongoing way.

Chronic pain can interrupt sleep, cause depression or anxiety, effect relationships and more. All of these situations are stressful.

Any type of stress that your body has to deal for very long can actually increase pain, that includes chronic pain. So learning to manage stress and improve your life by reducing stress can actually have the effect of reducing your experience of chronic pain!

Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between stress and chronic pain.

We all know that stress makes chronic pain worse (Alexander, et al., 2009; Flor, Turk, & Birbaumer, 1985). No matter what the original cause of your pain, stress exacerbates the pain. You have probably noticed this fact.

Whether it’s from depression, insomnia, relationship or financial problems, stress affects us by its effect on the nervous system. Stress makes us tense and nervous – literally. Our muscles becomes tight, particularly in certain areas of the body – the low back, mid and upper back, shoulders, neck, head, forehead, and jaw are the most common areas (we also feel it in our gut, by the way, with upset stomachs, reflux, diarrhea, among other things). Over time, the chronically tense muscles can ache and spasm. In other words, the persistent stress that results from chronic pain can cause chronic muscle tension, which, is painful.

Chronic pain causes more pain! It does so through the stress that it causes, which subsequently activates the nervous system and the persistently stressed nervous system leads to chronic muscle tension, which becomes painful in and of itself.

When understanding the role of stress from this perspective, most every chronic pain patient readily understands it because they live it. They see how stress affects their pain levels from their own experience.

Stress and its effect on the nervous system can exacerbate pain through more direct routes too. It’s not just the effect that stress has on muscle tension. It’s harder to see from your own personal experience, however, and so you’ll have to rely on a more textbook-like explanation. Stress, particularly the persistent stress of problems that occur as a result of chronic pain, causes changes to the nervous system itself. These changes occur in the spinal cord and brain and they result in changes in how sensory information is processed. An example of sensory information is pain signals that travel from nerves in the body, through the spinal cord, and up to the brain; the brain subsequently processes this information and the experience of pain results. As a result of persistent stress to this system, the brain comes to process such information with greater and greater sensitivity and as a result less and less stimuli (i.e., sensory information) is required to experience pain (Baliki, et al., 2006; Chapman, Tuckett, & Song, 2008; Curatolo, Arendt-Nielsen, & Petersen-Felix, 2006; Imbe, Iwai-Liao, & Senba, 2006; Kuehl, et al., 2010; Rivat, et al., 2010).

It’s generally accepted that by overcoming the persistently stressful problems that occur as a result of living with chronic pain – such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, you can make some headway in reversing these changes. You might not be able to change them entirely, but enough to reduce the pain itself. Indeed, most providers would concur that to adequately manage chronic pain these kinds of stressors must be addressed (Asmundson & Katz, 2009; Kroenke, et al., 2011; Vitiello, Rybarczyk, Von Korff, & Stepanski, 2009).
– via Institute for Chronic Pain Blog

 

Is chronic pain a problem for you?