Body & Fitness

Chronic pain explained: how to cope and common myths busted

Important things to know about a problem that impacts one in six Kiwis.

Chronic pain is a condition that can affect anyone. It doesn’t discriminate and it can disrupt any part of your body.

“It could be caused by an injury that hasn’t completely healed,” says chronic-pain expert Dr Coralie Wales.

“It may accompany a chronic condition that progressively causes damage such as arthritis or it may be caused by changes in the way our bodies respond to pain.”

How is chronic pain different from normal pain?

“Chronic pain is any pain that lasts longer than would normally be expected,” explains Coralie.

Unfortunately, the problem is often dismissed due to the lack of medical evidence associated with it.

“Sometimes chronic pain can be medically unexplained, which is incredibly frustrating for anyone experiencing it,” says pharmacist Jarrod McMaugh.

“This doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. However, medical diagnostic technology is not sophisticated enough to see the changes in the brain that indicate that pain is present.”

So can you cure the condition, how do you manage it and what don’t we know about it that we should? Coralie and Jarrod answer frequently asked questions so we can better understand chronic pain and support those who are suffering.

Can chronic pain be cured?

By definition, the affliction simply isn’t something that can be cured, according to Coralie.

“Just like other chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or mental health, there is no treatment or solution that will fix the condition,” she says.

“Chronic pain requires ongoing management. While medication may be a part of this, it should only have a supportive role to other therapies. The aim of treatment for chronic pain is to get to the best possible reduction in pain, while understanding that it may not be possible to be pain-free.”

Management techniques for dealing with chronic pain

What can people do to ease their discomfort? First, it’s important to understand there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “What works for some people may not work for others,” Jarrod explains.

Figuring out emotional and mental triggers to come up with management strategies is one way that can drastically improve your experience with chronic pain.

“There are many other different treatments, most commonly physiotherapy, to help stay active and move as normally as possible,” adds Jarrod.

“Counselling is also beneficial as it helps people understand how to cope with the changes that pain brings. Most important is for people in pain to learn

to do less than they think they can do every day – a technique called ‘pacing’, which leads to overall improvements over time.”

How to help a loved one dealing with chronic pain

If a friend or family member has chronic pain, do some research.

“Find out as much as you can about the physiology that explains chronic pain,” says Jarrod.

“This helps an understanding of symptoms and experiences. Don’t take over all activities for your loved one – have a conversation about what they feel they can and can’t do. Losing independence is really difficult.

“Last of all, laugh and love whenever possible. It’s actually helpful for chronic pain because it’s anti-inflammatory!”

Common misconceptions about chronic pain

Misconceptions: Chronic pain is imagined

This leads to people doubting their own experience. There is solid science about the physiological processes involved in chronic pain – sadly, usual medical diagnostic equipment struggles to see it.

Misconceptions: People with chronic pain exaggerate their experiences

Stigma surrounds those living with chronic pain, with the belief they may be embellishing the strength of their pain.

Misconceptions: People with chronic pain only want strong medication

Most people living with chronic pain say they would prefer not to have to take strong medication, but struggle to find affordable and accessible alternatives.

Misconceptions: Pushing through the pain will relieve it

Pushing too hard can lead people into the trap of overdoing activity, then going into a flare-up and needing to recover. Over time, people tend to feel worse when this happens.

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