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Understanding chronic pain

Pain is the universally recognised signal that something is wrong. But what happens if the pain we experience from an injury doesn’t go away?

We are all aware of the significant impact that pain can have on our lives. Whether it is from an age related condition such as osteoarthritis, a general health condition such as Gout, or from an accident or injury. Problems can develop if the pain does not settle over time, particularly in situations where an injury or condition has healed or settled down. Unfortunately this is the case for approximately 16% of the New Zealand population at any one time!

The development of persistent or chronic pain has not always been well understood. We usually associate pain with harm, and therefore our natural reaction is to run away from the sensation. This response is helpful when we are protecting ourselves from potential dangers such as placing our hand on a hot stove element or being stung by a wasp. It can be harder to understand why we may have ongoing pain when the initial danger has passed, or there is no longer any clear damage or risk to our body.

Recent research has shed some light on what may be contributing to the problem. Pain of course, is our body’s warning system of both damage, and the potential for damage. Problems can develop when our nervous system starts to become hypersensitive and starts sending out an excessive amount of information. In this situation our brain may start to focus more on the experience of pain than is necessary, and longer this happens, the more likely we will start to try and protect ourselves from a perceived threat.

Having pain for a long time can obviously have a significant impact on many different aspects of our lives. Physically, you might not be able to move as much or as well without setting off your pain, so you could have difficulty with simple everyday tasks, like getting dressed in the morning, or getting to and from work. Pain can also get in the way of you doing the activities you enjoy in life and it can sometimes impact on your ability to keep working.

The biggest impact however is often on our headspace as the effect of ongoing pain starts to impact on our thoughts, emotions and behaviour.  Difficulties with sleep, excessive worrying, anxiety or depression are commonly associated with chronic pain.

Top tips to help manage your chronic pain

Get support

To help keep on top of the problem, it is important to take a holistic approach and involve your family and friends in helping you to develop a long term plan to manage the problem. It can also be helpful to access a team of trusted health professionals for additional support when you need it.

Learn as much as you can about managing the problem

The better you understand your pain and the effect it is having on your life, the easier it is for you to develop a plan to help manage the problem. To find out more, talk to your health professional, read recommended books such as ‘Explain Pain’ and/or watch some of the excellent YouTube clips on managing chronic pain that are now available.

Set small and achievable goals

People with chronic pain can often find themselves in a downward spiral and over time your mobility, activity and ability to work can slowly reduce. It is important to recognise the areas in your life that are impacted by chronic pain. Writing a list can be useful and then choose a few activities that you would like to improve. It may be something as simple as walking around the block to the shops or going to watch a sports event.

Many people with ongoing pain make huge gains by slowly and steadily progressing their activity over time, despite their pain.  Remember to take your time as it can take a while for your body to adjust and you should expect the occasional set back.  It is also important to recognise when you have made some progress – and celebrate your milestones as you achieve them!

Try something different

It is also important to work out what it is you are missing about the activities you have been cut off from and then identify another alternative that can give you similar benefits. For example, if your back pain is preventing you from enjoying the social aspects of sport, you can you still go and support your team and enjoy the post-match catch up. If you are missing the psychological benefits of an activity then can you get these from some simple mindfulness techniques. Finding alternative activities that can help you feel more satisfied without aggravating your symptoms will help reduce the natural frustration that comes with chronic pain.

Need help?

If you would like to talk to someone about your ongoing pain, or if you want more information about TBI Health’s tailored pain management service please contact us or, learn more about how we can help you.