Chronic Pain as a Disease: Why Does it Still Hurt?

Chronic Pain as a Disease: Why Does it Still Hurt?

People who suffer from severe, chronic back pain know how it can utterly disrupt and damage one’s life. Chronic back pain can be cruel—making it hard to enjoy even the simplest daily activities, and certainly making it a challenge to carry out an exercise routine and other healthy activities. Moreover, chronic pain was not previously all that well understood. The medical profession used to believe that pain is always a manifestation of an underlying injury or disease. As such, doctors focused on treating the underlying cause of the pain, with the belief that once the injury or disease was cured the chronic pain would then disappear.

If no underlying cause could be found for the pain, then the patient was told that very few treatments are available, or worse, “the pain must be in your head”. Unfortunately, some doctors still practice in this manner, having no appreciation for the unique problem of chronic pain, newer theories about chronic pain, and the many factors that influence a chronic pain problem.

The medical community is starting to understand that if pain is no longer a function of a healthy nervous system (signaling that there is a disease or underlying injury), then the chronic pain itself becomes the problem and needs to be treated as the primary pathology.

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The Experience of Chronic Pain

Contrary to popular belief, all pain is real. This may seem like an obvious statement, but people with chronic pain are sometimes treated as if their chronic pain is either imaginary or exaggerated. In some cases, they feel like they have to prove their chronic pain to their friends, family and doctors. Some patients are told by their doctor that there is no reason for the chronic pain and therefore “it cannot be that bad”.

Chronic pain is a personal experience and cannot be measured like other problems in medicine, such as a broken leg or an infection. For instance, a broken leg can be confirmed by an X-ray and an infection by a blood test measuring white blood cell count. Unfortunately, there is no medical test to measure chronic pain levels.

To make matters more challenging for the patient, for many chronic pain problems there is no objective evidence or physical findings to explain the pain. Thus, many chronic pain sufferers go from one doctor to the next searching for explanations. This process can lead to unnecessary evaluations and treatments, in addition to putting the patient at risk for actually being harmed or made worse by the healthcare profession.

Everyone experiences and expresses pain differently. Two people with the exact same injury will feel and show their pain in unique ways depending on a number of things such as:

  • The situation in which the pain occurs
  • Thoughts about the chronic pain, such as “this is nothing serious” versus “this pain could kill me”
  • Emotions associated with the chronic pain, such as depression and anxiety versus hopefulness and optimism
  • Cultural influences determining whether a person is to be more stoic or more dramatic in showing pain to others

The newest theories of chronic pain can now explain, on a physiological level, how and why people experience pain differently.

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