We all experience pain at some point in our lives. However, sometimes pain lasts for longer than expected, and this is called long-term or ‘chronic’ pain.
The British Pain Society defines chronic pain as pain that has lasted for more than 12 weeks or that has continued after the time you’d expect healing to have occurred following an injury or surgery.
What’s the difference between short-term and long-term pain?
Pain is usually a warning sign to your body that damage, or the threat of damage, has occurred. It also helps the healing process as we protect areas that are hurting and use them less. This is particularly true of short-term (acute) pain, for example when you cut yourself.
Messages travel from the damaged area through your spinal cord to your brain. Your brain locates the injury and generates a response to start the healing process and warn you that damage has occurred. Your experience of pain is an outcome of those processes, and it’s nearly always accompanied by an emotional response.
The pain usually disappears once the area has healed.
In long-term pain, your nervous system can cause you to feel pain without there being any damage to your body.
Changes in your brain, spinal cord and tissues result in the messages between your body and brain becoming disturbed. This can mean that your nerves are more easily ‘triggered’, so you experience light touch as painful or areas of your body hurt when you do activities that wouldn’t normally cause pain.
Your body is designed to protect a painful area, rest it and look for a cure, so your natural response is to reduce your activities and think that there’s something structurally wrong that can be fixed.
When your joints and muscles are rested for any length of time they start to become weaker and bones can lose some of their density. You become less fit and tire easily, so when you exercise you may feel very stiff. This may increase your pain, so you want to avoid any activity that causes this.
Why do I have long-term pain?
Having a condition that causes visible changes to your body, like arthritis, can explain the reasons for your pain. However, sometimes pain can be experienced without any signs of damage to your body, or it continues after an injury has healed.
We don’t completely understand the reasons for long-term pain where there’s no obvious cause, and it can be difficult to understand.
Friends and family may think that your pain is ‘just in your mind’ and you can ‘snap out of it’. This can be distressing and you may question whether the pain is ‘real’ or not.