Just about everyone feels pain from time to time. When you cut your finger or pull a muscle, pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. Once the injury heals, you stop hurting.
Chronic pain is different. Your body keeps hurting weeks, months, or even years after the injury. Doctors often define chronic pain as any pain that lasts for 3 to 6 months or more.
Chronic pain can have real effects on your day-to-day life and your mental health. But you and your doctor can work together to treat it.
What Makes You Feel Chronic Pain?
The feeling of pain comes from a series of messages that zip through your nervous system. When you hurt yourself, the injury turns on pain sensors in that area. They send a message in the form of an electrical signal, which travels from nerve to nerve until it reaches your brain. Your brain processes the signal and sends out the message that you hurt.
Usually the signal stops when the cause of the pain is resolved — your body repairs the wound on your finger or your torn muscle. But with chronic pain, the nerve signals keep firing even after you’ve healed.
Which Conditions Cause Chronic Pain?
Sometimes chronic pain can begin without any obvious cause. But for many people, it starts after an injury or because of a health condition. Some of the leading causes include:
- Past injuries or surgeries
- Back problems
- Migraines and other headaches
- Nerve damage
- Fibromyalgia, a condition in which people feel muscle pain throughout their bodies
Chronic pain can range from mild to severe. It can continue day after day or come and go. The pain can feel like:
- A dull ache
Sometimes pain is just one of many symptoms, which can also include:
- Feeling very tired or wiped out
- Not feeling hungry
- Trouble sleeping
- Mood changes
- A lack of energy
Chronic Pain and Your Mental Health
Chronic pain can interfere with your daily life, keeping you from doing things you want and need to do. It can take a toll on your self-esteem and make you feel angry, depressed, anxious, and frustrated.
The link between your emotions and pain can create a cycle. When you hurt, you’re more likely to feel depressed. That can make your pain even worse. The link between depression and pain is why doctors often use antidepressants as one treatment for chronic pain. These drugs can help with both the pain and the emotional strain it causes.
Pain also interferes with sleep and raises your stress levels. Both a lack of sleep and more stress can make pain feel stronger.
Get Help for Chronic Pain
If you hurt and it doesn’t seem to get better, see your primary care doctor or a pain specialist. They can help you find relief so pain won’t keep you from living your life. Some options include medicine, relaxation therapy, physical therapy, acupuncture, and lifestyle changes, such as getting enough sleep and not smoking.