Most agree that chronic pain is pain that lasts for a period longer than 6 months. It may originate in the body, in the spinal cord, or in the brain. Sufferers may have pain that is mild, severe, or that fluctuates in intensity, and the pain may or may not be continuous.
Unsurprisingly, chronic pain sufferers often struggle not just with pain, but also with fatigue and sleeplessness, weakened immune systems, and changes in mood.
The Canadian Pain Society notes that 1-in-5 Canadian adults suffer from chronic pain; the prevalence increases to 4 of 5 among older adults living in long-term care facilities.
Shockingly, 1-in-5 Canadian children and teens also suffer from chronic pain, with 5-8% of those having severe enough symptoms to affect schoolwork, social development and physical activity.
With such a high prevalence, we have to question what can be done to relieve the suffering. Treating chronic pain can be difficult; the source of a person’s pain may not be well understood and, even if it is, the pain may not be curable. Rather than eliminating the pain, the goal of treating chronic pain is often to reduce the pain and to focus on improving the sufferer’s ability to function.
For those with relatively mild symptoms, home-based pain management strategies may suffice. Such strategies include:
• Sleeping well – Set yourself up for sleep success. Avoid late day naps, caffeine and snacks. Go to bed and get out of bed at the same times every day. Follow a routine.
• Exercising daily – Staying active can be of great benefit. Low impact aerobic exercise such as swimming, walking or cycling may be well tolerated. Start slowly and speak to your doctor before beginning a program.
• Paying attention to your health – Seek attention for medical or mental health issues before a small issue escalates. Untreated problems will often exacerbate chronic pain.
• Healthy eating – Eating a balanced diet will keep you healthy and strong, enhance your immune system and, in some necessary cases, reduce your weight.
• Stopping smoking – Smoking can negatively affect your perception of pain and may also inhibit your response to other treatment strategies.
• Stress management – Strategies such as deep breathing, meditation, self-massage, and relaxation therapy may be effective.
• Peer support – Accessing community based support groups can be a positive experience.
Failing the above, chronic pain sufferers may need professional advice and guidance to manage symptoms.
• Medication – Options may include over the counter medications such as Tylenol, Aspirin and Ibuprofen, or prescribed medications such as tricyclic antidepressants, opiate pain relievers, SSRI’s, corticosteroids, and anticonvulsants.
• Multi-disciplinary treatment – Medications may work best in conjunction with a multi-disciplinary treatment approach. Services including, but not necessarily limited to, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, psychology, and nutritional counselling may be of benefit.
• Nerve block injections, local anesthesia, and trigger point injections can be effective for some.
• Surgery – while not an option for everyone, surgery for intrathecal drug delivery and spinal cord stimulation may be viable options.
If you have chronic pain that is not improved despite trialing the above treatment options, out-patient or in-patient pain clinic programming may be an avenue to pursue with physician guidance. There are several reputable clinics available in Ontario and across the country.
With at least 20% of our population affected, chronic pain is a very real and ever-increasing problem. While there may never be a cure for chronic pain, we can certainly hope for further advances to better manage chronic pain in the years to come.