Do you experience chronic pain with flares that are overwhelming? Does your discomfort rarely drop to a level that you can manage well? Is your mental health suffering because physical agony is ripping apart your brain and emotions?
An estimated 20% of Americans have chronic pain. But eight in every 100 — that’s 19.6 million — live with what’s called “high-impact chronic pain.” That is, pain that’s been present for three or more months that has a major impact on meaningful activity. Work, study, or household chores can become impossible because of the restrictive nature of horrible discomfort.
If this situation sounds familiar, it raises an important question: What can you do when chronic pain becomes too much?
The good news is that research shows there are approaches that effectively relieve discomfort. We’ll get to these answers shortly. But first, let’s look at chronic pain. What is it? What types exist? How can intense, unrelenting pain impact life?
Identifying pain’s consequences will help you understand that you are not to blame for this condition and its repercussions. If you have a loved one who is suffering, you’ll begin to comprehend its magnitude. This will help you to be a better, more informed support.
Table of Contents
What is chronic pain?
An article published in the appropriately named journal, Pain, defined chronic pain as:
Pain that persists past normal healing time… Usually pain is regarded as chronic when it lasts or recurs for more than 3 to 6 months.
Pain should occur only in the short-term, acting as a warning system that something is (or might soon go) wrong. A sprained ankle, a bruised limb, a sudden cut, a threat. However, in chronic pain this system goes awry. The nervous system and the body’s tissues allow the alarm to continue to blast. As the siren continues to sound, signs and symptoms can arise.
Different types of chronic pain
Chronic pain is sometimes separated into different groups in order to explain why pain is occurring, and to direct treatment. Common types and disorder types are two ways to do this. This is not essential for you to know in detail, nor is it an exhaustive list. But by simply being aware of the ways pain can be categorized you can expand your knowledge, consider new avenues to approach and treat your pain, and realize you are not alone.
Common types of chronic pain:
Defined as “pain caused by a lesion or disease of the somatosensory nervous system,” this type of pain is triggered by a problem in the nervous system.
Nociceptive pain can be thought of as pain that comes from an injury or disease affecting the body’s structures. Bone, joint, muscle, skin, tendon included.
It may sound strange, but nociceptive pain can strike without clear evidence of tissue damage. It’s likely this happens because of heightened processing of potential “pain signals” in the brain, because the dampeners to pain (the inhibitory pathways) decrease, and because other conditions that can increase pain — like mood and sleep disorders — are present.
Us, humans, are never simple creatures. So, it’s possible to experience neuropathic and nociceptive pain together. This is known as mixed pain.
Disorder type includes:
Pain can also be classified according to disorder type. For example:
— Chronic primary pain
— Chronic cancer pain
— Chronic post-traumatic and post-surgical pain
— Chronic neuropathic pain
— Chronic headache and orofacial pain
— Chronic visceral (organ) pain
— Chronic musculoskeletal pain
Now that you know a little more about how chronic pain is classified and how a health professional might think about your pain, let’s talk about what really matters: The consequences of pain and what to do when chronic pain is too much.
The potential consequences of chronic pain
A broad range of potential consequences can rise as a result of unrelenting pain. Many books have been written about this topic. But, briefly, let’s cover four.
It’s unsurprising that ongoing pain could cause mental illness. Continual discomfort and the consequences that often stem from this — an inability to work or study, reliance on others, financial hardship, social isolation — increase the risk of anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, and substance abuse.
Soreness sabotages sleep in a way that creates a vicious cycle. It’s hard to slumber when pain means you can’t get comfortable. Then, insomnia worsens pain. Then sleep becomes trickier. The cycle continues until it is broken.
The body is exquisitely designed to aid your survival. Your “automated” (autonomic) nervous system and its fight or flight response are part of this. Evolutionarily speaking, pain meant danger. So when struck by soreness, the body conserves its energy for preservation not procreation. This can have sexual impacts for those with ongoing pain.
For example, a 2018 study in women with fibromyalgia found that, “All sexual response cycle domains including desire, arousal, orgasm, pain, lubrication, and satisfaction” were diminished in this pain condition.
As well as the presence of pain, its treatment can adversely affect sexual function. Research has shown that long-term use of opioids is linked to increased use of pharmaceutical drugs for erectile dysfunction. That infers that pain medication may cause dysfunction. Poor sexual function reduces quality of life. This can create a downward spiral.
As its name suggests, catastrophizing is the tendency to amplify the perceived threat of a pain stimulus; to worry that something will cause greater pain than it may in real life. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and also make it difficult to inhibit — to switch off or turn down — pain-related thoughts that occur when thinking about, or after, a painful event.
There is no fault here; the body and brain are simply trying to protect you. But catastrophizing can worsen the experience of pain. Wonderfully, the steps below will help here; both when chronic pain is too much and at other times.
Treatment for when chronic pain is too much
When you think of pain, what chronic pain treatment options spring to mind?
If you’re like many people, your first thought will be medication. A range of pain meds are commonly prescribed to help manage ongoing pain, and sometimes strong drugs are dispensed when chronic pain becomes unbearable.
When does chronic pain become unbearable?
Simply when it’s too much for you to cope with. When it infuses your mind, affects how you think, behave, and feel, when you can’t switch it off… when you decide it is excessive and intolerable.
Yet, medication is only one approach. While it may certainly have an important role to play, there are other ways to make discomfort more manageable in day-to-day life. Let’s look at our top four tips…
Chronic pain can interfere with regular exercise. When you’re struggling, the last thing you might feel like is moving. But physical activity can calm pain and enhance healing.
By combining activities that increase fitness, flexibility, and muscular strength you can:
— Boost core strength, which helps you to move better
— Improve suppleness and allow easier motion and enhanced function
— Increase blood flow, which delivers healing nutrients to the body and brain
— Enrich the healing process
— Reduce pain
Choose an exercise you enjoy and engage regularly. The aim is not to trigger a flare so start gently and increase gradually.
Many types of physical therapy have been shown to soothe pain and break the cycle of suffering. People report relief from approaches like:
— Physical therapy
— Craniosacral therapy
Relaxation and enjoyment
Chronic pain can strip your quality of life and make it hard to relax. When your nerves are set on edge and your body is tense and tender, calm can seem impossible. Yet relaxation is exactly what you need. This focus may help manage day-to-day discomfort and be useful when chronic pain becomes too much. For example…
— Focusing on a hobby you can do and adore
— Long hugs
— Relaxation massage
Professional in-home support
Chronic pain can be all-encompassing. While professional support can be life-changing, the idea of leaving your home, commuting, sitting in a waiting room, then receiving care can be overwhelming…
But cutting edge advances in technology have changed the game.
Drug-free pain management approaches include cognitive-behavioral therapy (also known as CBT), mindfulness practices, and virtual reality (VR). These can be delivered online by a licensed expert who specializes in chronic pain management.
At XR.Health, we combine VR technology with digital delivery and expert care that is carefully tailored for you.
As one of our clients, Stacey, said, “I went into the experience unsure how much could be done to help my pain issues and a few months later I was close to pain free. My experience was fantastic.”
If you’re ready to find relief from your chronic pain, we look forward to helping you. Find out more about our Chronic Pain therapy and treatment approach.