What Is Chronic Pain?

Overview

Everyone experiences occasional aches and pains. In fact, sudden pain is an important reaction of the nervous system that helps alert you to possible injury. When an injury occurs, pain signals travel from the injured area up your spinal cord and to your brain.

Pain will usually become less severe as the injury heals. However, chronic pain is different from typical pain. With chronic pain, your body continues to send pain signals to your brain, even after an injury heals. This can last several weeks to years. Chronic pain can limit your mobility and reduce your flexibility, strength, and endurance. This may make it challenging to get through daily tasks and activities.

 Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts at least 12 weeks. The pain may feel sharp or dull, causing a burning or aching sensation in the affected areas. It may be steady or intermittent, coming and going without any apparent reason. Chronic pain can occur in nearly any part of your body. The pain can feel different in the various affected areas.

Some of the most common types of chronic pain include:

  • headache
  • postsurgical 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, more than 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.

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 result from 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): a condition that causes painful clicking, popping, or locking of the jaw
  • vulvodynia: chronic vulva pain that occurs with no obvious cause

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  1. In some cases, however, people experience chronic pain without any prior injury.

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