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Chronic pain management

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain means long-term pain, usually defined as lasting for longer than 12 weeks.

Chronic pain affects people in different ways, from continuous pain to pain that comes and goes. Chronic pain also varies in intensity, and may be stabbing or throbbing in nature. Chronic pain can affect a person's quality of life at home and work, and may prevent them from doing things they enjoy.

Around 28 million adults in the UK are affected by chronic pain, according to a 2016 study in the online medical journal BMJ Open.

What causes chronic pain?

Chronic pain can have many causes, including:

How is chronic pain diagnosed?

Chronic pain will be diagnosed based on a person's symptoms, their medical history and any conditions or likely causes of the pain, and a physical examination. A doctor may arrange tests to help with the diagnosis and to rule out possible causes.

How is chronic pain treated?

Treatment will depend on the type of pain and what's found to be causing it.

Treating the underlying condition may help reduce the pain, as may painkillers.

A referral to a pain specialist or clinic may be arranged.

For physical causes of chronic pain, like back pain and joint pain, physiotherapy may be recommended as well as an exercise plan to help with flexibility and strengthening. In the past rest was thought to be best, but now keeping as active as possible is recommended.

Emotional and mental health issues - such as depression - can be caused by chronic pain. These conditions may require separate treatment, such as antidepressants or counselling after a referral to a mental health specialist.

Constant pain can also make it difficult to sleep well, and in turn losing sleep can make pain worse. A doctor can help with sleep problems.

If pain has caused disability, help may be needed with adaptations to lifestyle, home and work to make life easier. Pacing yourself and setting limits and boundaries for some activities may be recommended to help avoid aggravating pain and causing fatigue.

A doctor may ask if anything makes pain worse, or reduces symptoms. With chronic pain, such as arthritis pain, avoiding triggers may help reduce pain.

Complementary therapies for chronic pain

Some people find relief from complementary therapies, such as acupuncture. Check with your doctor first that the planned therapy won’t interfere with mainstream treatment or make pain worse. Make sure the therapist you pick is qualified in their field and is a member of a recognised body for that profession.

Mind-body techniques, such as relaxation therapy, guided imagery and meditation may be recommended by the NHS in some cases, or are available through private therapists.

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