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Chronic pain

Chronic pain
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Chronic pain

3-minute read

Chronic pain is pain that lasts for more than three months, or in many cases, beyond normal healing time.

There are different types of chronic pain, such as nerve pain, pain from bones, muscles and joints, as well as cancer pain. Chronic pain can be anything from mild to severe. It is different to acute pain, such as pain from an injury, which happens quickly and doesn't usually last for long.

What causes chronic pain?

Chronic pain can be due to chronic illnesses like migraine, osteoporosis, arthritis and other musculoskeletal ailments, or after an injury or surgery. Sometimes there is no apparent cause.

Normally, if you get an injury, the nerves from that part of your body send signals to the brain that there’s a problem. The brain reads these signals as pain.

But when someone has chronic pain, the nerves that carry pain signals to the brain or the brain itself are behaving in an unusual way. The nerves might be more sensitive than usual, or the brain might be misreading other signals as pain.

Living with chronic pain

Chronic pain can make it hard to work, take care of yourself and do the things you enjoy. It can also affect your sleep and mood. More than half of Australian adults with chronic pain become anxious or depressed because of their pain. It’s important to treat this if it happens.

Just as pain can affect your mood, improving your emotional health and wellbeing can also help you manage your pain.

Managing chronic pain

Medicines alone are not the answer to chronic pain.

Medicines to treat pain are generally divided into opioids and non-opioid medicines. Opioids are strong painkillers like morphine, fentanyl or oxycodone or codeine. They might be prescribed for short periods but are not very effective in pain that is not caused by cancer. Long-term use of opioids has potentially serious harms, including accidental fatal overdose, dependence or addiction.

Non-opioid pain medicines, like paracetamol and ibuprofen, can be effective at relieving pain, but should generally be used only for a short period and in combination with self-management techniques.

People with chronic pain who actively manage their pain on a daily basis do better than those who rely on passive therapies, like medication or surgery. Most people benefit from a range of different treatments and self-management, such as:

  • psychological techniques — you can see a psychologist or use online self-help sites
  • pacing your activities
  • physiotherapy
  • relaxation techniques such as meditation
  • exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling or tai chi
  • improving your sleep

The aim of managing chronic pain is to allow you to resume do things such as socialise,work and be active generally. Reliance on medication is usually short term as you learn to regain function and cope with the symptoms of chronic pain.

Talk to your doctor about a plan for managing your chronic pain.

Last reviewed: September 2018

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