Chronic pain: What you need to know

By Megan Storey | July 2, 2019

At the end of this month, we celebrate National Pain Week. So, this month we’re going to look at chronic pain – something that 3.24 million Australians live with day in, day out. When you are living with chronic pain, life can be difficult. Getting out of bed in the morning, going to work, parenting… Pretty much everything can become very hard work. Being in pain for a prolonged period can be debilitating and can have huge impact on a person’s life.

Back with barbed wireIn 2018, the total running healthcare costs relating to chronic pain across Australia topped $139 billion! And unfortunately, it is predicted that by 2050, more than 5 million Australians will be living with chronic pain. And, as research tells us, women experience chronic pain more than men. Women are generally more sensitive to pain and report more widespread and higher intensity of pain than that of their male counterparts. It is interesting though that women tend to accept their pain and get on with things, whereas men tend to become more depressed when in pain. So, man flu is a real thing!

As physiotherapists, treating chronic pain is part of our daily working life. Understanding chronic pain is complicated and requires some in-depth training. So, to make things a little easier to understand, we’ve put together this blog to help break it all down and give you a little introduction to what chronic pain is all about.

So, what is pain?

This seems like a good place to start. Pain is something us humans and other animals on the planet are fortunate enough to experience. Fortunate? Bear with us. Pain is so crucial because it is our body’s protection mechanism. Interestingly, sometimes we can even feel pain before we get to the injury stage – it can act as a red flashing warning light! Once injured, pain will hang around for a little while to remind us that we need to protect the injured area from further damage – so that we can heal. It’s probably the most state-of-the-art alarm system you’ve ever come across, and the answer is sitting inside your skull. Yes, you guessed it, you have your brain to thank for all of this :).

So, I hear you ask, ‘why are we so fortunate to feel pain?’ Well, there are a small minority of people on this earth who cannot and have never felt any pain at all. These people may have one of a group of very rare conditions called Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP). Some people might think this is pretty cool, but this is a very serious condition, and many who are born with it have a shortened lifespan because potentially fatal injuries and illnesses can go completely unnoticed. People with CIP wouldn’t know they had just stood on that rusty nail, or that they have just sliced open their arm or leg. Pain is literally a lifesaver.

For ease of understanding, pain tends to be categorised based on time. ‘Acute’ pain is pain that is felt any time from injury up to the six-week mark. ‘Sub-acute’ pain (a sub-category of acute pain) is pain felt anywhere between six weeks and three months. ‘Chronic’ pain is pain that is felt for three months or longer. Let’s have a quick run down …

Acute pain

We feel acute pain when we fall and graze our skin, twist on the netball court and sprain our knee ligaments, or when we slice our finger with a knife when cooking. When this happens, special sensors around the injury site detect that all is not right and send a message along the nerves to the spinal cord and up into the brain. Your brain processes this information at lightening quick speed and then sends a message back to the injury site as a pain signal and you wince or yell out (and possibly curse). As time progresses over the following days and weeks, the injury heals, and the pain disappears. Along the way, your brain forms a memory of the unfortunate event. This makes you more aware and helps you to avoid similar dangerous situations in the future. State of the art indeed!

Chronic pain

Remember the definition for chronic pain – pain that is felt for three months or longer. This pain is also sometimes called ‘persistent’ pain, because it is just that – persistent! In many instances of chronic pain, it is pain that is felt beyond the bodies normal tissue healing times. As an example, a mild to moderate knee ligament sprain takes approximately six weeks to heal. Sometimes people who have injured their knee still get pain months after the injury has healed. They have entered the realms of chronic pain. Things become more complex because by this stage there may well be involvement of different bodily systems. And, most importantly, the person’s belief about what pain is has a huge impact on their recovery. There may also be unrelated issues, such as arthritis that is impacting on recovery or hasn’t been previously diagnosed.

The development of chronic pain is a complicated process. In a nutshell, the healing of tissues has already occurred (as discussed above), yet the brain still thinks there’s a threat. This is due to changes in the nerves carrying signals to the spinal cord, and changes in the spinal cord itself. Basically, these nerves become highly sensitised and end up sending misleading information to the brain. The brain perceives this information as still threatening, and the result is ongoing pain. Ultimately your nerves are ‘tricking’ your brain into thinking you’re injured. We would like to point out that it is much more complicated than that, but this gives you the basic idea of what is happening.

It is important to understand that when someone is in pain for long periods of time, they can start to become affected in other ways. Depression and anxiety resulting from chronic pain is very common. A person’s beliefs about pain will begin to affect their behaviour also. For example, a netball player with the knee ligament injury, once playing again, may avoid certain movements due to fear of re-injuring themselves. In psychological terms, this is known as exhibiting fear avoidance behaviours, and can keep the cycle of pain going for longer than necessary.

Treating chronic pain

The longer the cycle of chronic pain persists, the more difficult it becomes to treat. Unfortunately, treatment is not as simple as applying first aid principles. Of course, treating someone’s movement dysfunctions and getting their strength and flexibility levels right are very important, but treating the resultant depression and anxiety, and educating the person on what changes have occurred in their body so they can change their beliefs about what pain is, is just as important, if not more.

Until all contributing factors of a person’s chronic pain cycle are dealt with in some way, it is unlikely the cycle will be broken. Therefore, treating chronic pain rarely comes down to just one profession or practitioner. In most cases, it requires a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment. We as physiotherapists play a crucial role, but a person may also require the services of a psychologist, their GP and possibly other specialists too. Pain medications may be prescribed by your GP to help control pain levels, but the debate on how effective strong pain medications are in the instances of chronic pain is still out.

Your physio is an expert at re-training your body to move properly and get stronger and more flexible.  We will use our hands to affect your muscles, joints and skin, as well as prescribe you exercises to get you on the path to optimum movement and health. These will include exercises relating to strength building, flexibility, posture and breathing. We may also give advice on how to improve your sleeping and diet, to make sure your body is getting the correct amounts of rest and nutrition it needs to function. Most importantly though, we will sit you down and educate you on what exactly is going on with your body so that you can begin to understand it yourself and start the process of beating chronic pain. It will be a big team effort, and the results will be totally worth it.

We hope you found this blog a worthwhile read. If you would like to know more about chronic pain or National Pain Week, please visit http://www.nationalpainweek.org.au.