Chronic pain

Pain is a very normal, human experience. We all feel it at times and when we do, it’s usually helpful and functional. Pain acts as an alarm bell, signaling to us that some damage has occurred and that we should take action to protect ourselves from further injury. For example, you’ve probably had the experience of touching a hot surface and quickly withdrawing your hand in response to feeling pain. Without pain, you might not be aware that your body was being damaged.

Pain normally disappears when the injury is healed or when the danger is over. However, sometimes pain does not go away and becomes a source of distress and suffering. This is called chronic pain.

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain refers to the long-term (three months or more) experience of pain, where pain persists beyond a normal healing time and is no longer functioning as a warning sign. Chronic pain can range from mild to severe and may be experienced daily, or come and go.

Chronic pain can impact significantly on people’s lives. It can restrict participation at school or work, or make it difficult to go about other usual activities. With therapy and pain management strategies in place, it is possible to have a better quality of life, feel happier, and experience less pain.

Causes of chronic pain

Pain is a complex phenomenon that is the result of both psychological and physical factors. Chronic pain can occur for a variety of reasons but is often related to injuries or health conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis or other musculoskeletal conditions.

When there does not appear to be a medical condition explaining chronic pain, neuroscience shows that it can be due to the nervous system being oversensitive. In such situations, the nervous system continues to respond as though there is an ongoing illness or injury. Additionally, our thoughts and feelings can also influence our experience of pain.

Types of chronic pain

There are different types of chronic pain, including:

Prevalence of chronic pain

Many people will experience chronic pain at some point in their lives. The 2016 National Health Interview Survey indicated that around 20.4% of Americans had chronic pain. Higher rates of chronic pain were found in women, older adults, and adults living in poverty.

Symptoms of chronic pain

If you experience some of the following symptoms, seek an evaluation from your physician. Symptoms persisting for three months or longer may indicate chronic pain.

Psychological challenges associated with chronic pain

Living with chronic pain is distressing and can impact our ability to function. Some people experience symptoms of mental health conditions, including:

Treatment options for chronic pain

Chronic pain is complex and can be the result of a combination of physical, psychological and social factors. As such, a multidisciplinary treatment approach is common, meaning that you might see a few different types of health providers. Treatment often includes a combination of education, therapy and medication.

If you’re experiencing chronic pain, consult with your physician about one or more of the following options:

Therapy for chronic pain

Psychological treatment is an important part of a pain management plan. Many effective types of therapy can help improve your mood and quality of life.

Common evidence-based therapeutic approaches include:

What to look for in a therapist for chronic pain

There are several factors to keep in mind when selecting a mental health professional, including:

Specialization: Look for a therapist who has experience and specialized training in pain management. Many therapists have a particular interest in treating chronic pain, and some even work in dedicated chronic pain treatment teams. Therapists often include this kind of information in their biographies so that it’s easy for you to find.

Qualifications: With so many different provider types available, it can be difficult to decide which type of mental health professional to see. The most important thing is to look for a currently licensed therapist.

That said, if you think medication might be needed, make sure you see a psychiatrist. This particular type of mental health professional is able to prescribe.

Personal fit: The trusting relationship between you and your therapist, known as the “therapeutic alliance” can have a huge impact on the efficacy of therapy. Many people with chronic pain struggle with feeling that others don’t believe them, so it’s important to work with someone you trust and feel understood by.

The best way to judge how you might feel about a therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. This also enables you to ask about their experience treating chronic pain and what therapy with them will be like. Try to speak to a few different therapists before deciding on a provider.

Find therapists specializing in chronic pain

Find therapists who specialize in chronic pain on Zencare. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!

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