Chronic Pain

What Is Chronic Pain Syndrome?

Chronic pain syndrome is a severe condition that can cause many problems. This guide explains the symptoms, causes, and treatment of chronic pain.

Table of Contents

Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment of Chronic Pain Disorders

Chronic pain affects millions of people in the United States each year. The uncomfortable and persistent reality of chronic pain syndrome can get in the way of your everyday life and activities and often plays a role in developing mental health disorders such as depression or substance use.

There are some chronic pain treatments, but finding the one that works for you can take time, and not everybody will find the chronic pain relief they seek.

How Common Is Chronic Pain Syndrome?

Chronic pain is exceedingly common. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that: 1 
  • More than 1 in 5 adults experienced chronic pain in the last three months
  • 7.4% experienced enough side effects of pain that it interfered with their everyday life
  • Adults aged 65 and over are the most likely to experience chronic pain
  • People who live in rural areas are more likely to experience chronic pain
  • Non-Hispanic white adults were the most likely to experience chronic pain

Since chronic pain is so prevalent, much work has been done to advance chronic pain therapy, treat chronic pain effectively, and provide people relief from chronic pain.

What Makes You Feel Chronic Pain?

Most people with chronic pain syndrome have an identifiable cause or trigger. It could be arthritis, osteoporosis, or old injuries that continue to provide pain. But many others may struggle to identify the source of their pain and could benefit from seeking treatment to help determine the root causes and triggers.

The direct cause of chronic pain also differs between patients. Chronic pain can result from trauma, injury, chemotherapy, infection, or nerve damage.

Chronic Pain: an Inside Look

What Is The Difference Between Chronic Pain and Other Pain?

The simple difference between chronic and regular pain is the frequency at which it occurs. Anyone would feel pain if they stubbed their toe or twisted an ankle, but it wears off over time. Chronic pain is persistent, and many people dealing with chronic pain cannot find any relief.

Symptoms of Chronic Pain Syndrome

Chronic pain symptoms vary in intensity and location, and different people will experience chronic pain in diverse ways. Some chronic pain symptoms include:

Joint Pain

Joint pain is felt around the body’s major joints, such as the knees, elbows, or shoulders. As a result, using these joints can cause intense discomfort and lead people to become more sedentary.

Muscle Aches

Consistent muscle aches — or chronic soreness — is another common form of chronic body pain. Chronic soreness may result from muscle imbalances, poor posture, or sleep difficulties. The most common chronic pain in this category is a sore back.

Burning Pain

Chronic burning pain may be a sign of nerve damage, though there are several potential causes. Burning pain is often described as intense heat or a “pins and needles” feeling.

Fatigue

Chronic pain conditions can often lead to intense bouts of fatigue. Feeling chronic body pain all of the time can wear you down, both physically and mentally. Further, certain types of pain make it difficult to move around, which leads victims to get out of shape and feel even more fatigued.

Sleep Problems

Perpetual pain and soreness can make it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, and get a good night’s rest. Chronic pain patients who don’t get enough high-quality sleep often experience worsening symptoms since their body and mind can’t restore themselves fully at night.

Loss of Stamina and Flexibility

Several types of chronic pain can lead to loss of stamina and flexibility. Joint pain, for instance, can lead to underutilizing your knees, shoulders, or elbows, leading to them losing the ability to function at previous levels. This can result in a loss of physical conditioning and stamina.

Mood Problems

Simply put, chronic pain doesn’t feel good. It can make people feel irritable, restless, and generally discontent. Many chronic pain patients will experience significant mood shifts after chronic pain becomes a problem

Causes of Chronic Pain Syndrome

Chronic pain has dozens, if not hundreds, of different causes. Sometimes, even the natural aging process can result in conditions that cause chronic pain. Below, we’ve listed some of the most common chronic pain causes to guide chronic pain treatment.

Osteoarthritis

A frequent cause of chronic pain, osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis that affects your knees, hips, hands, and spine. In the U.S., 32.5 million adults suffer from osteoarthritis, making it the most common form of arthritis.2 

Osteoarthritis is caused by a progressive wearing down of the tissue found at the ends of bones and can cause substantial joint pain that may become chronic. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and responds to some treatments and medications.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. People with rheumatoid arthritis have an immune system that attacks tissue in their joints and can ultimately lead to erosion of the bones and chronic joint pain. 3 
There is no known cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but several treatments exist that can help people manage the symptoms of chronic pain that often result.

Back Pain

Back pain is one of the most common causes of chronic pain and has several different causes. 4  Back pain may result from repeatedly lifting heavy objects, bulging or ruptured discs, or as a side effect of osteoarthritis. When back pain is a frequent cause of discomfort and distress, it can lead to chronic pain syndrome.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain disease with no known cause. It affects roughly 2% of adults in the United States and is characterized by pain felt across the entire body. 5 

Fibromyalgia often causes intense mental distress, chronic fatigue, and sleep problems. People with fibromyalgia are often diagnosed with chronic pain syndrome, but treating fibromyalgia tends to be more difficult than other common causes.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis fall under inflammatory bowel disease. 6  This chronic pain disease is characterized by inflammation in the GI tract and often comes with chronic abdominal pain and diarrhea symptoms. Inflammatory bowel disease is thought to be caused by a weakened immune system.

Advanced Cancer

Cancer pain is a severe side effect of an intense disease. 7  The likelihood that somebody develops chronic pain syndrome due to advanced cancer depends on the individual, the type of cancer, and what stage cancer has reached. According to recent data, 1 in 3 cancer survivors will also deal with chronic pain.8 

How Is Chronic Pain Diagnosed?

Getting a diagnosis of chronic pain disorder means meeting with your physician, answering questions about your pain, and possibly undergoing imaging tests to locate the cause of the pain. Your doctor might ask you questions such as:
  • How long have you been experiencing the pain?
  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how severe is the pain?
  • Where is the pain located?
  • Does the pain feel like burning, aching, or pins and needles?
  • Does anything trigger the pain?

They may also investigate your medical history to see if you have any risk factors for chronic pain and may be able to help provide treatments for dealing with chronic pain.

What Tests Are Used to Diagnose Chronic Pain?

Typically, the best tests to accurately diagnose chronic pain are imaging tests. This includes X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans. These images can show whether bone or tissue is directly damaged and can look at specific organs for illness or dysfunction.

What Are the Risk Factors for Chronic Pain?

Several risk factors for chronic pain are entirely out of your control. Others are lifestyle factors that could be addressed. The risk factors for chronic pain include:
  • Genetics
  • Obesity
  • Older age
  • Having a previous injury
  • Having a labor-intensive job
  • Experiencing stress
  • Smoking

While you can’t change your age or genetics, cutting back on smoking, finding ways to relieve stress, or engaging in healthy eating and exercise practices can reduce your risk of developing a chronic pain syndrome.

What Are The Complications of Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain can affect nearly every aspect of your life. Since the pain is so persistent, it can interfere with getting out of the house, seeing friends, or simply feeling comfortable in your own home. Further, the repeated experience of pain can lead to brain adaptations that interfere with motivation and reward.9 

Chronic pain can reduce your overall quality of life, lead to depression or anxiety, amplify the effect of existing chronic disease, and put people at an increased risk of suicide. It can also lead to substance use disorders, as people look for any possible mechanism to relieve the symptoms of pain in their everyday life.

And while certain drugs can relieve the effects of pain for a short period, developing an addiction will ultimately worsen your pain and decrease your quality of life in a destructive downward spiral.

Answers to Questions Pertaining to Chronic Pain

Can Chronic Pain Be Prevented?

There is no surefire way of preventing all chronic pain with so many causes for chronic pain — including diseases that have no known treatments or cures. You can prevent some forms of chronic pain by engaging in regular exercise, stretching, and eating a balanced and nutritious diet.
Cutting down on harmful activities like smoking or substance use can further reduce your risk of developing chronic pain syndrome. It also helps to get consistent, high-quality sleep.

What Is the Prognosis for People with Chronic Pain?

Ultimately, the prognosis for chronic pain patients depends on their specific set of symptoms and medical history. Some people may respond well to treatment and chronic pain therapy, while others may struggle with finding any form of tangible relief.

Determining the prognosis for your chronic pain disorder should be a discussion with your doctor, but there are a few lifestyle changes you can make to feel better.

How Can I Cope with Chronic Pain?

Making a few simple changes in your lifestyle can dramatically change your chronic pain levels. These changes may not stop chronic pain altogether, but they could help you manage your symptoms and feel some relief.

Eat a Healthy Diet

A balanced diet can help reduce your weight, ensure your body has the nutrients to restore itself and prevent the buildup of painful inflammation. Diet is one of the most overlooked causes of and treatments for chronic pain and should play an important role in your treatment plan.

Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise helps your body keep its physical conditioning, helping with fatigue and mobility loss symptoms.
Exercising with chronic pain can be incredibly difficult for some people but finding some way to move your body that doesn’t cause pain can be extremely beneficial. It can help you lower your weight, reduce joint strain, fall asleep faster, and manage stress levels.

Get Enough Sleep

The average adult needs seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night. In the United States, most adults fall short of this mark — and chronic pain patients even more so. Getting enough sleep can help your body restore itself and stop the buildup of chronic stress levels.

Manage Your Stress

Speaking of stress, finding a way to reduce stress in your life may help with chronic pain. Try adding new activities that help relieve stress, such as meditation. Also, try removing stressful activities that trigger your symptoms.

Limit Alcohol

While many people turn to alcohol as a form of pain relief, significant alcohol consumption can worsen your chronic pain levels. In addition, alcohol has dangerous interactions with common pain medications used to treat chronic pain and should not be combined with most prescription painkillers.

Treatment for Chronic Pain Syndrome

Different types of chronic pain respond to different treatments. The goal of treatment is either to provide relief from chronic pain symptoms or to remove the root cause of the chronic pain itself. Below, we’ve listed several common chronic pain treatments and how they work.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy aims to treat chronic pain by correcting muscle imbalances, teaching people strategies to avoid chronic pain triggers, and helping people learn how to exercise despite suffering from a chronic pain syndrome.
Physical therapy is best suited to treating chronic pain patients whose pain has been caused by injury or lifestyle problems. However, it may not be effective at helping people with chronic pain diseases.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy is similar to physical therapy but focuses on helping people accomplish their daily tasks and activities despite chronic pain.
Occupational therapy might include helping people learn to use ambulatory devices — such as a cane or walker — learning to avoid situations that lead to chronic pain, and navigating everyday situations that your chronic pain interferes with.

One-On-One or Group Therapy

Counseling may not be able to treat the physical causes of chronic pain, but it is a highly effective tool for helping people manage the emotional turmoil that chronic pain syndromes can cause.
People who experience a lack of motivation, depression, or substance use disorders may need the help of trained therapists to overcome these problems, and individual or group therapy can help.

Relaxation Techniques Such as Deep Breathing or Meditation

Relaxation or meditation techniques can have a powerful effect on helping people cope with chronic pain symptoms. Recent research has shown that strategies such as mindfulness-based stress reduction can improve quality of life, self-rated health, and many other symptoms associated with chronic pain.10 

Nerve Blocks

Nerve blocks are a type of medication that stops pain at the source. While it doesn’t treat the cause of the pain itself, a nerve block can prevent patients from experiencing the pain, offering substantial relief.
A nerve block is essentially a numbing medication injected near the source of the pain. Nerve blocks are temporary, and many people will need repeated procedures to get results.

Pain Medicines

NSAIDs, Antidepressants, Anti-seizure Drugs, and Muscle Relaxants Pain medications have come a long way. Several drugs exist to help treat chronic pain, and different drugs are more effective for different types of pain.
The most common form of pain medication is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen. But other medications, such as muscle relaxants, may relieve certain chronic pain.

Surgery to Treat the Condition That Caused the Pain

In some cases, surgery can stop chronic pain at the source. People who have a slipped disk and experience chronic back pain, for instance, may benefit from corrective surgery that puts the disk back into place. Not all chronic pain conditions can benefit from surgery but speaking to your doctor about whether surgery is the right choice for you can help you learn about your options.

Managing Chronic Pain: A Deeper Look