Chronic pain is considered pain that lasts longer than three months.
The person experiences this pain consistently, over a period of months and sometimes years.
Acute pain occurs due to injury or illness but goes away as the body heals. Common causes of acute pain include an injury, like broken bones, burns, or cuts; surgery; tooth decay; and labor. Common causes of chronic pain are much more complicated. They include:
- Arthritis or osteoarthritis
- Carpal tunnel
- Autoimmune disorders, such as lupus
- Spinal injury
- Nerve damage
- Concussion or traumatic brain injury
- Lingering infection
- Multiple sclerosis
- Joint pain
- Backaches or neck pain
- Shoulder problems
- Sinus pain
- Pelvic pain
- Nerve or muscle pain
- Pain after injury
Current estimates suggest that around 20 percent of the population suffer from chronic pain for some period of their lives. If the condition continues or worsens over a very long period of time, the individual may fall into depression or begin to suffer anxiety regarding when the next bout with pain will come. These emotions can reduce the amount of natural painkillers in the brain, like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, which can increase the number or severity of pain “flare-ups.” Some researchers have found that chronic pain can weaken the immune system, making pain worse and exposing the individual to an increased risk of suffering from other illnesses.
The symptoms of chronic pain often extend beyond just the pain itself. When a person experiences this consistent level of pain, other aspects of life are affected. Common symptoms related to chronic pain include:
- Sleeplessness and fatigue
- Greater need to rest after regular activities or an inability to partake in many activities
- Weakened immune system, resulting in more frequent illnesses and infections
- Depression, anxiety, and mood swings
- Decreased appetite or nausea
Each person experiences pain differently and at different intensities. The most important thing for people who suffer from chronic pain conditions is to get the pain under control. In addition to alternative methods of controlling pain, physicians often use a variety of prescription medications to help patients reduce and manage pain.
Common Prescription Medications to Treat Chronic Pain
Prescription medication alone helps about 58 percent of people suffering from chronic pain. These medications typically include:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers: Doctors sometimes advise patients to take specific doses of over-the-counter pain medications, like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, or NSAIDs. Though they are available over the counter, these medications often lead to side effects with long-term use, such as liver damage with chronic use of acetaminophen.
- Prescription pain medication: These medications include oxycodone and hydrocodone-based drugs. Vicodin, OxyContin, codeine, morphine, and Percocet are commonly prescribed opioid medications, and these drugs can be highly addictive.
- Antidepressants: Some medical studies have shown that antidepressants can lessen chronic pain by increasing availability of the body’s natural neurotransmitters. Tricyclic antidepressants appear to be better at aiding in pain relief than other types; these include amitriptyline, doxepin, and clomipramine.
- Anticonvulsants: Some chronic pain conditions can be aided by drugs normally prescribed to patients with epilepsy, such as phenytoin, gabapentin, or pregabalin. While it is not wholly clear why these drugs lessen chronic pain, experts believe anticonvulsants may disrupt how pain signals flow within the body.
The Risk of Addiction to Medications for Chronic Pain
In the last decade, the United States has seen a startling increase in opioid addiction and deaths related to such addiction. The Centers for Disease Control noted that, between 2001 and 2014, the number of people who died from prescription opioid overdose increased almost threefold.
While opioid drugs, like hydrocodone, are effective at relieving pain, their potential for addiction, particularly with chronic use, is high. As the body develops a tolerance to the medication, the same dosage level will no longer be effective in reducing pain. As a result, individuals often up their dosages in an effort to escape pain. Even though these drugs are prescribed by a physician, any deviation from the prescription instructions – including taking the drug more frequently or at a higher dose than prescribed – constitutes abuse.
Tolerance is a normal effect that occurs, and its presence does not necessarily mean a person is addicted to the medication. It simply means the body has grown accustomed to its presence. If a person who is suffering from chronic pain no longer feels relief from a medication, the prescribing physician should be consulted. In many instances, the physician will switch the individual to an alternative medication rather than simply increasing the dosage.
Other Treatments for Chronic Pain
Oftentimes, the best treatments for chronic pain focus on the mind as well as the body. Maintaining low levels of pain with pharmaceuticals can be a great short-term solution, but if it does not include mental and emotional support, the individual may suffer cravings for addictive substances and ultimately fall into addiction.
There are various non-medication methods for treating chronic pain. Some people feel some level of pain relief if they take up regular exercise, electrical stimulation, acupuncture, or relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation. For people whose chronic pain is triggered with mood issues like anxiety or depression, talk therapy and antidepressants could be very helpful. A combination of physical therapy and emotional support therapy, like individual therapy or group therapy, works for many people who wish to reduce or end use of opioid medications for their chronic pain condition, or for people who believe their use of pain medication might make their chronic pain worse.
Since many people who have been taking prescription painkillers for chronic pain have developed a physical dependence on the drugs, they should not attempt to simply stop taking the medications cold turkey on their own.
Medical detox can slowly taper individuals off the drugs and ensure their safety and comfort throughout the withdrawal process.
If addiction is an issue, medical detox should be followed with comprehensive addiction treatment.