Chronic pain

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Chronic pain is often "invisible." You might look healthy to others, especially if you don't use a wheelchair, cane, or brace. But chronic pain is real, and the sooner you can learn to manage your pain and improve your quality of life.

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is different from acute pain.

  • Acute pain — like a pulled muscle, sprained ankle, or a deep cut — usually doesn’t last long. It may happen because of an injury or illness, and gets better as the injury heals.
  • Chronic pain doesn't always have a specific cause, and it can take a long time to improve. For some people, chronic pain never goes away completely.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have pain that has lasted for more than 3 months. This may be a sign of a chronic pain condition.

Get quick strategies for living better with chronic pain (PDF).

What causes chronic pain?

knee painPain usually starts when nerves send signals to your brain, telling it you have an injury or illness. When you have chronic pain, your body might heal but your brain keeps getting these signals. Studies show that over time your brain may become so used to getting pain signals, it can't turn them off.

In some cases, chronic pain isn't caused by injury or illness at all, but by pain signals that are not working properly. This may be because of:

  • Damaged nerves
  • Pain that seems to have no cause

Understanding the source of your pain can be key to helping you treat it.

Cancer pain is often treated differently than chronic pain. Learn about living with cancer.

How pain affects you

There's more to chronic pain than the way your body feels. You may also experience symptoms like:

  • Depression
  • Problems with exercising or moving around
  • Mood swings
  • Problems functioning at home and at work
  • Sleep problems and tiredness
  • Strained relationships with family and friends 
  • Tension that leads to more pain

Talk to your doctor about these very common problems, all of which can increase pain, make coping with pain worse, and reduce your quality of life. Ask for help to break the pain-depression cycle.

Care for Pain is a personalized online program that can help you manage these symptoms.

Understanding your pain

Simply understanding what triggers your pain, how bad your pain is, and what makes it better can be the first step to managing it.

Start a pain journal to track how you feel, paying particular attention to your activity level and how much you are able to do before you need to rest or change your activity.. Recording this type of information can help you to set goals regarding how long you can work, when to rest, and when, gradually, you will be able to return to activity. This is a good tool to use when you talk to your doctor about your pain and functioning. 

Get important tips for talking to your doctor about chronic pain.

Reviewed by: Benjamin Balderson, MD, January 2019

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