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All About Pain
As many as one in four people in the United States lives with chronic pain and must find the right combination of coping strategies.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Pain. Immediately, you know what the word means and recognize the sensation. Fortunately there are many pain management methods to help you take control of your pain, which is especially important if you are experiencing chronic pain.
What Is Pain?
Though pain is truly both a physical and an emotional experience perceived and processed by the brain, it's a real health problem as well.
"Chronic pain is now considered by the experts as a disease," says Sujittra Tongprasert, MD, an anesthesiologist with the University of Louisville Hospital in Kentucky.
"Pain is the final interpretation of [the] central nervous system to any stimulation, mostly noxious [irritating] stimulation, at the given time," says Dr. Tongprasert. "To put it simply, pain is the perception of unpleasant sensation with the associated feeling of discomfort and/or suffering.” You may not have actual tissue damage, adds Tongprasert. That doesn't mean that the pain isn't real, just that the type of pain and the severity of pain a person feels depends on the individual.
"Each individual has different pain perception, and the meaning of pain is also different from one person to another," says Tongprasert.
Simply put, pain is your body's way of warning you that you are in danger and that you need to pay attention to what you're doing. "Pain is in fact the warning system for the body to prevent it from damage. When we touch [a] hot pan, the burning sensation will signal an automatic response to drop the pan, therefore avoiding or minimizing the burn injury," notes Tongprasert.
How Pain Is Treated
There are many different ways to treat pain, and the most appropriate pain management method for you will depend on several factors: how severe the pain is, how it affects your life, how frequently you find yourself dealing with pain, and the actual cause of your pain.
“Generally, the most effective treatment of any medical condition is to get rid of the offending cause," says Tongprasert. "For pain, especially chronic pain, this method might not be possible."
Most of the time, the goal of treatment is to decrease the intensity of your pain and make you feel better. For acute pain, this goal is often met successfully. But chronic pain — pain lasting for at least three months or more — has a different effect on the nervous system and needs to be treated differently.
A multidisciplinary approach, using a combination of pain management treatments and techniques, is often the most successful way to manage chronic pain, Tongprasert says. This approach can include:
- Medications to manage pain, such as analgesics, opioids, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- Physical therapy
- Heat and cold therapy
- Blocking nerves from pain at particular points
No matter which combination of pain management techniques you use, staying with that combination approach is often the most effective method.
"It is very rare for any of these techniques to be successful if used alone in chronic pain. With the physiological and psychosocial changes that occur in chronic pain, a multidisciplinary approach is the most appropriate treatment strategy," says Tongprasert.
Pain Management Includes Your Outlook
It's important to approach pain management the right way. Just like diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and other chronic diseases, chronic pain needs to be addressed and treated as a serious condition.
"That means it can be treated and controlled; however, a patient may need to learn to cope and live with it," Tongprasert adds.
Because the right approach to pain is different for each individual, a cookie-cutter treatment plan isn’t the answer.
"To presume that one strategy would work for every individual with the same pain syndrome is over-optimistic. Each person is unique in the response to the chronic pain state. The most effective way to treat chronic pain is to adjust the strategy to suit each pain syndrome individually," says Tongprasert.
Video: Understanding Pain in less than 5 minutes, and what to do about it!
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