What is chronic pain?

Well, our bodies use pain signals to let our brains know that something is wrong. There are two different types of pain: acute and chronic. Acute pain happens suddenly and is usually very sharp—for example, pain from a broken bone, or a cut or burn—and typically goes away as the injury heals or the specific cause is resolved.

Chronic pain is usually defined as pain that lasts six months or more. It could be the result of a past injury that did not heal properly (such as a back injury), or a common medical condition, such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headaches
  • Nerve damage

Chronic pain can last for months and even years after a medical condition resolves or an injury heals.

This pain is very debilitating and often interferes with daily life. In 2019, about one in five adults reported having chronic pain that “frequently limited life or work activities in the past 3 months,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women are more likely than men to report chronic pain. Older adults (45 and over) are also significantly more likely to experience chronic pain than younger adults.

September is Pain Awareness Month

Chronic pain affects about 100 million adults each year. A significant number of those people have debilitating pain that makes it hard to work or participate in daily activities. The National Institutes of Health reports that 8 in 10 people will experience back pain at some point in their lives. For some, it will become chronic pain.

In addition to physical discomfort, chronic pain can put a lot of stress on your body. It can be a “silent” illness because people cannot see your injury from the outside. In time, that can lead to depression, anger, and anxiety.

How to reduce your risk of chronic pain

You might not be able to prevent all types of chronic pain, but there are some things you can do to reduce your risk. These include:

Regular exercise

Exercise has many physical benefits. Regular exercise increases strength, endurance and improves muscle function to reduce the risk of injury. It can also help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, which reduces the pressure on your joints. Strong muscles can support and protect your joints and slow down or prevent degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis. Strength and resistance training can also improve bone health to reduce the risk of fractures that might lead to chronic pain as you get older.

Yoga & meditation

A 2019 study found that people with chronic pain who participate in regular yoga classes (twice a week) had significant improvements in self-reported pain scores compared to people who did not. Regular yoga and mindful meditation help manage pain and reduce risk by:

  • Improving flexibility to prevent acute injuries or strains that could become chronic
  • Lowering stress levels, which helps decrease inflammation from a stress response
  • Strengthening core muscles in your back and neck to prevent short- and long-term injuries

Mindful meditation and yoga can also help people who suffer from chronic pain by dissociating negative emotions from the pain itself. It won’t get rid of the pain but can help manage daily pain.

A healthy work environment

Some common activities that lead to chronic pain are work-related, including repetitive motions, standing or sitting for prolonged periods of time, or poor ergonomics while sitting at a workstation. Evaluate your current workplace to reduce risks. For example, employees who:

  • Lift or carry heavy loads can wear protective braces on your back or knees
  • Work at a desk can get an ergonomic chair and make sure your workstation is set up to minimize neck or back muscle strain
  • Stand for long periods of time can request a cushioned or anti-fatigue mat
  • Perform repetitive movements can request frequent breaks to avoid excessive strain

Take a proactive approach to chronic pain

Simple steps that you take today can help reduce your risk of long-term injury and illness, including the risk of chronic pain. Contact your doctor today or make a note to discuss chronic pain prevention tips during your next visit.