If you or someone you know suffers from chronic pain, then you already know the toll that chronic pain can take.
When you have pain that lasts and does not respond to traditional medical therapy, even basic tasks become difficult. Chronic pain can take away your strength and spirit and can put relationships with the people closest to you at risk.
The first step to finding relief and restoring your ability to enjoy activities is to understand what pain is and why we feel it. This section will help you learn about the different types of pain.
Chronic pain infographic
Pain is the body’s natural response to harm or possible damage. Pain occurs when special nerve endings, called pain receptors or nociceptors, are turned on because of illness or injury (for example, when exposed to trauma, physical pressure, or too much heat or cold) or when chemical changes indicate that body tissues are damaged.
Nerve Fibers Send Pain Messages to the Brain
When a pain receptor is turned on at the site of an injury or illness, it triggers the release of chemicals that send the pain message to the brain. This message is sent across a pain nerve pathway. The pathway begins at the nerve ending and is carried along the nerve fiber to where the nerve enters the spinal cord. When the message reaches the spinal cord, it is transmitted to the brain, which interprets the message as the unpleasant feeling called pain. This unpleasant feeling instantly prompts you to do something to stop the source of pain.
Two Types of Pain
Two types of pain exist: nociceptive and neuropathic. Each is set apart by its cause, how long it lasts, what it feels like, and the types of medical treatment that help it.
Nociceptive pain is caused when special nerve endings – called nociceptors – are irritated. Nociceptive pain is the type of pain you feel when you burn yourself, twist your ankle, or stub your toe. Nociceptive pain is a dull or sharp aching pain, and it can be mild or severe. This type of pain can usually be controlled if the cause of the irritation is removed or medically treated. Nociceptive pain usually responds well to mild pain medications, anti-inflammatory agents, or other drug therapies. Nociceptive pain can be a temporary condition, such as when you have a sprained ankle or a stiff neck, but nociceptive pain can sometimes be a chronic condition. Cancer pain and arthritis pain are common types of chronic nociceptive pain.
Neuropathic pain is caused by a malfunction of the nervous system due to injury, disease, or trauma confined to a small area (for example, trauma caused by surgery). Neuropathic pain can be sharp, intense, and constant; it can also be dull, aching, and throbbing. Some describe it as an extremely painful burning, tingling, shocking, or shooting pain. Neuropathic pain is also very stubborn. It does not usually respond as well as nociceptive pain to standard pain therapies such as mild analgesics and other pain medications.
The Challenge of Chronic Pain
When pain lasts for a long time, it is called chronic pain. Many physicians consider pain to be chronic when it has lasted for six months or longer. Others say that pain is chronic when it lasts one month longer than it should.
Today, chronic pain is one of the most critical healthcare issues in the world. In the United States alone, more than 100 million people suffer with some type of chronic pain. More than half of these chronic pain sufferers are partially or totally disabled. In fact, chronic pain disables more people than cancer or heart disease. Chronic pain takes its toll on personal lives, healthcare resources, and the economy; and it costs the American public more than both cancer and heart disease combined—more than $100 billion in medical expenses and more than $60 billion each year in lost productivity. This has led the United States Congress to declare this decade the “Decade of Pain Control and Research.”