What is Chronic Pain?
In a nutshell, chronic pain is pain that lasts beyond the normal healing time, about 3 months or more. It is different from acute pain, such as pain from an injury or surgery. Acute pain develops but also disappears quickly when the underlying cause is treated or resolved.
There are many causes of chronic pain. Sometimes, when acute pain is left untreated or is poorly treated, it can turn into chronic pain. The longer the acute pain is neglected, the higher the risk of developing chronic pain will be. Sometimes, chronic pain is nerve pain. This happens when our pain nerves or the brain are not behaving properly. One might say that the pain nerve system has gone “haywire”. That is, our pain nerve system becomes inappropriately sensitive even after the initial injury or illness is healed. Sometimes, chronic pain is associated with an ongoing health condition, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, or cancer. Sometimes, chronic pain could occur without any past injury or evidence of illness.
Vicious Cycle of Chronic Pain
Chronic pain does not only increase one’s physical discomfort. Chronic pain also interferes with one’s ability to engage in important activities, such as work, school, or social activities.
To get rid of chronic pain, many individuals spend a large amount of time and effort on numerous types of treatments, at times questionable ones. Some people rely on pain medications or chemical substances to cope with the pain. However, after a lengthy period of treatments, many individuals with chronic pain realize their plan to get rid of the chronic pain often does not produce a satisfactory outcome. Quite often, they become distressed, anxious, and depressed. Some people also become dependent on chemical substances or pain medications. Unfortunately, stress, anxiety, and depression, in turn, increase the intensity of chronic pain, creating the vicious cycle of chronic pain.
Managing Chronic Pain
Rather than trying to completely get rid of chronic pain, it is often more beneficial for individuals to improve their chronic pain management to enhance their quality of life. In addition to appropriate medical treatments, people with chronic pain can use many strategies to manage their pain.
Many individuals with chronic pain can safely exercise (under professional guidance). Stretching and yoga can relax the tense body. Exercise can strengthen muscles. When people maintain a good exercise routine, their body becomes stronger. Thus, they report an increase in pain tolerance and notice their pain is lower.
Excessive weight can put a lot of pressure on the physical body and therefore increase pain. Combining an active lifestyle and a balanced diet can be beneficial for weight loss, leading to lower pain.
When people have a good night’s sleep, they report lower pain. At times, chronic pain causes physical difficulties with falling and/or maintaining sleep. Other times, chronic pain causes anxious and/or depressive thoughts in bed that disrupt sleep. Practicing good sleep hygiene, relaxation strategies, and addressing the negative thoughts can improve sleep which will be beneficial for chronic pain.
Some individuals with chronic pain will try to push through their pain to complete a big task list. Others will avoid doing things even with little pain. Both approaches can lead to deterioration of their physical functioning in the long run because of over exhaustion or lack of movement. When people with chronic pain learn to pace their activities, not doing too much or too little, they become better managers of their pain. This allows them to maintain or even increase their ability to do things in the long run.
Seeking support from loved ones can be helpful to alleviate the stress from chronic pain. Joining a chronic pain support group is beneficial when people share their thoughts and feelings with others who have similar experiences. They can learn from each other about pain coping strategies. Mutual support in a group can be powerful and healing.
Managing stress, anxiety, and depression
Research has shown us that stress, anxiety, and depression amplify pain signals. People with chronic pain reportedly notice their pain is higher when their mental health deteriorates. On the other hand, when people learn to reduce their stress, anxiety, and depression, they often notice an improvement in their pain too.
How can Psychologists Help with Chronic Pain?
Psychologists can assist people with chronic pain in understanding their unhelpful behaviours, thoughts, and feelings associated with pain. Psychologists can help them in increasing their motivation to improve their exercise and diet. They can collaborate with individuals to develop better pacing, sleep, and social support plans. In addition, psychologists can provide relaxation techniques training for individuals with chronic pain to reduce their stress.
Furthermore, psychologists are trained in helping people recognize, challenge and change their unhelpful beliefs and thoughts about pain. People with pain can develop a more adaptive and balanced perspective on their chronic pain. Rather than exerting a huge amount of time and effort on getting rid of the pain without much success, people with pain could better develop an acceptance stance towards their pain. This will allow them to save and redirect their precious energy for behaviours that improve their quality of life and activities that enhance meaningfulness in their lives.
If you or someone you know is suffering from chronic pain, contact us for a free 15-minute consultation to see how we can help you on your path to feeling better.