Chronic Pain

Chronic Pain Syndrome

In chronic pain syndrome, a patient has pain that has persisted months or years longer than one might expect from an inciting event. Several maladaptive features are associated with the pain. In patients with chronic pain syndrome, suffering occurs at every level of being: physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual. In essence, the patient becomes defined by pain rather than by a more soulful sense of self. Chronic pain syndrome may be seen as a combination of any of the other clinical syndromes discussed previously. Chronic pain syndrome may be one of the most challenging clinical syndromes for clinicians to address and manage.

chronic pain

Chronic pain syndrome entails chronic neuropathic pain and, as such, represents a dysfunction of the nervous system. There is no clear consensus as to why patients develop chronic pain syndrome. What is clear is that an inciting event or events occur, and patients seemingly never recover. Rather, pain persists, takes on a life of its own, and the patient becomes imprisoned, living a life of pain every waking moment.

Chronic pain syndrome can develop in any region of the body. Some patients have chronic, refractory headache. Others have chronic, refractory neck pain. Others have unrelenting low back pain. Others have more diffuse body and joint pain. Chronic pain syndrome is distinguished from the chronic pain that occurs as a result of inflammatory or mechanical causes by the fact that no situational fluctuations to the pain occur. Chronic pain syndrome is essentially indistinguishable from post-laminectomy syndrome if the patient has undergone lumbar spine surgery.

Patients who have chronic pain syndrome in the region of the lower back typically have  pain that never ceases. Patients have difficulty sleeping at night because of pain. Pain may  be described as sharp, burning,  electric, shock-like, lancinating, achy, or simply as a diffuse, deep-seated pain. Sensitivity  to touch may be present in the region of the pain.

 Sometimes, associated autonomic features are present, in that there may be alterations in  skin color or temperature and even regional changes in the hair growth pattern. Because  of musculoskeletal disuse, bone loss may develop. In addition, muscle contractures and  even bony contractures can occur. In women of childbearing age with chronic pain  syndrome, menstrual irregularity is common. 

Patients generally complain that pain worsens with any type of prolonged activity, and  pain also is present at rest. Weather fluctuations may influence pain, and day-to-day  emotional fluctuations may precipitate pain. Typically, patients have undergone  numerous therapeutic interventions, including epidural injections, facet blocks, surgical  procedures, multiple trials of medications, and multiple trials of physical therapy and  spinal manipulation. 

Depression is the rule in patients with chronic pain syndrome. Often, patients have a flat  affect , which means that they no longer express a range of emotions when speaking.  Many patients have lost a sense of hope. Relationships have become defined by pain, and  the family unit often is dysfunctional because the patient suffering with pain can no  longer become meaningfully engaged in family or social relationships. Very often,  patients are out of work and receiving disability compensation.

Patients often feel desperate, and they may have sought a multitude of alternative  treatment strategies. Too often, patients have been taken advantage of by clinicians who  offer unrealistic hope. Many patients with chronic pain syndrome seem to be going  through the motions when they are undergoing an evaluation by a clinician, because they  feel that they are not being heard; very often, they think that no one believes them. This  is not surprising given the fact that multiple treatments have failed and, very often,  clinicians will simply say that no adequate explanation exists for the patient’s pain, thus  suggesting that the pain must have a psychosomatic origin.

 Cause of Chronic Pain Syndrome

The cause of chronic pain lies within nervous system dysfunction. A concept in  neuroscience called brain plasticity means that the brain can reorganize following an  insult to the body or nervous system. There is no question that brain reorganization  occurs in chronic pain patients, but the reorganization is not necessarily because of a lesion in the nervous system. Rather, the  reorganization occurs as a result of a multitude of physical and emotional responses to a  major inciting event or multiple inciting events. 

Genetic factors may predispose to the development of chronic pain syndrome. Some  studies suggest genetic alterations in pain receptors of the spinal cord, and these  alterations predispose such patients to neuropathic pain. Other evidence suggests that  patients who have suffered prior trauma or abuse are more predisposed to developing  chronic pain syndrome when compared with the general population. This latter  explanation should not lead physicians to presume that patients with chronic pain  syndrome have been prior victims of abuse. 

Even in patients who suffer with chronic pain syndrome, fluctuations in pain may occur  that have an anatomic basis. Thus, clinicians must always be aware of this possibility. For  example, a patient suffering with chronic pain syndrome may develop a superimposed  lumbar disc herniation, a severe strain in the iliopsoas muscle, or an acute spinal fracture,  all as a result of prior, chronic maladaptations. Any one of a number of possibilities of  more acute, anatomically based pain is possible in patients who suffer with chronic pain.  Addressing these factors is key, while keeping in mind that they are only one part of the  larger cycle of pain. 

Physical Examination

No classic physical examination findings are present in patients who suffer with chronic  pain. More often than not, several maladaptive musculoskeletal findings are evident  when performing a careful physical examination. This may include abnormal movements  of the lumbar spine in flexion and extension, abnormal contractility of supporting lumbar  spine musculature, or chronic spasm and sensitivity of muscles, which can be noted by  palpation. The neurologic exam is unremarkable unless the chronic pain syndrome has  developed in the setting of a prior neurologic insult, for example, a nerve root injury as  part of a lumbar spine disorder. 

Imaging and Diagnostic Studies

No classic imaging and diagnostic studies are definitive in patients who suffer with  chronic pain syndrome. Some evidence may be present of prior  surgical interventions and, as with patients who suffer with failed-back syndrome,  incidental findings of degenerative disc changes or chronic disc herniations may be noted.  Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies may show evidence of chronic  lumbar nerve root irritation, but do not reveal meaningful active denervation changes.  Very often, patients are subjected to a multitude of imaging and diagnostic studies,  including but not limited to multiple plain radiographs, multiple magnetic resonance  imaging (MRI) studies, routine and triple phase bone scan studies, EMG and nerve  conduction studies, myelogram, and detailed rheumatologic evaluation. None of these  studies provides a compelling explanation for the patient’s pain. 

In functional brain imaging studies, such as functional brain MRI or positron emission  tomography (PET) scanning, patients who suffer with chronic pain syndrome may  demonstrate abnormal metabolism and hyper-responsiveness in several areas of the  limbic brain , which is the largely nonconscious, emotional brain. These studies  demonstrate that the simplistic view of pain pathways no longer holds for patients with  chronic pain syndrome. 

Treatment Considerations


Patients with chronic pain syndrome benefit from psychological counseling. However, the  manner in which this is presented to the patient is important. Patients should not be led  to believe that they are undergoing psychological counseling because their pain is  psychogenic in origin. Rather, patients require psychological counseling because an  almost universal, coexisting depression and sense of hopelessness are present. Coping  strategies are usually poor, and the family unit often has broken down. Individual  psychological counseling in conjunction with group therapy is extremely beneficial. 

Medication management usually includes a combination approach. Because patients  frequently have a disruption of their sleep cycle, medications such as amitriptyline (an  early-generation antidepressant medication) or an anticonvulsant with sedative  properties can be useful to help restore sleep. Low-dose amitriptyline may have painrelieving  properties in and of  itself. Similarly, anticonvulsants should be titrated upward, as tolerated and needed,  because they may provide an important avenue of pain relief. 


Newer-generation antidepressants also may play an important role in helping to treat  depression and anxiety. Narcotic analgesics may be an important part of treatment,  because anything that leads to pain reduction may help to improve quality of life. Muscle  relaxants also may play an important role in patients who have chronic, hypercontracted  musculature. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have little role in the longterm  management of chronic pain syndrome. 

Manual therapy plays an extremely important role. However, such therapy must be  performed with a long-term vision in mind. Most patients have already been through  multiple attempts at physical therapy or chiropractic care. Manual therapy should be  performed with a focus on myofascial release and craniosacral technique, in an attempt to  help the patient turn inward, become more attuned to his body, and to gradually help  restore proper posture in body mechanics. 

Therapeutic injections may or may not play a role, depending on the clinical  manifestation at hand. Some patients who suffer with chronic pain syndrome also have  situational, mechanical pain. For example, some patients with chronic low back pain also  develop more specific facet jamming; such patients may obtain some relief from facet  injections. However, if such injections are utilized, it should be understood that they are  not the answer, but only a small part of the multidisciplinary treatment. If patients obtain  meaningful benefit, then a facet rhizotomy procedure should be considered. Usually,  epidural corticosteroid injections or selective nerve root injections are ineffective.

 Once patients have developed some aspects of pain control and coping strategies, a gentle  exercise program should be encouraged. This should be coordinated carefully with the  physical therapist. 


One must proceed very cautiously with any thoughts of surgerv in patients who suffer  with chronic pain syndrome. Patients are often desperate, and even physicians can be  desperate to try to cure the patient of his malady. It is important to remember that  chronic pain syndrome represents a dysfunction of the nervous system, and surgical  interventions to correct anatomic lesions or deficits may only lead to an augmented pain response  postoperatively. Unless a clearly defined, anatomically well-localized cause of one aspect  of the patient’s chronic pain syndrome exists, all surgical considerations should be  avoided. Physicians should explain to patients that surgery may only worsen the  situation. 

In cases of well-localized pain, spinal cord stimulator may be considered as part of a welldisciplined,  multidisciplinary treatment. Again, the lure may be that spinal cord  stimulator will alleviate the patient’s problem; this is unlikely in patients who have  chronic pain syndrome. If spinal cord stimulator can help to alleviate some pain, and if  patients can achieve better coping strategies and obtain a better sense of pain relief with  medication management and manual interventions, then such an intervention can be  considered. 

In patients who clearly benefit from narcotic analgesics, but who cannot tolerate systemic  side effects, then a morphine pump may be considered. As with a spinal cord stimulator,  this should be part of a multidisciplinary approach, not a unilateral intervention. 

Mind-Body Considerations

Mind-body considerations play a pivotal role in managing patients with chronic pain  syndrome. Such a patient has been suffering considerably, usually with a marked  dissociation between the patient’s emotions and his sense of physical pain. Initial mindbody  approaches should include meditation and relaxation exercises, possibly coupled  with biofeedback or similar strategies. At a minimum, such strategies should help the  patient cope and gain a sense of control over his own physiology and pain responses.  Sometimes, such interventions open the door to greater mind-body insights. 

The one potential trap of mind-body therapy in treating patients with chronic pain  syndrome is the assumption that the patient is hiding something from his past. This is a  dangerous assumption in which a patient is led to believe that he is the cause of his  problem. Although we can assume that depression, anxiety, and pain intermix with  chronic pain syndrome, we cannot presume that depression or prior psychological factors  are the sole cause of chronic pain syndrome. 

Summary Points

  • Chronic pain syndrome can develop from any one of a number of clinical syndromes. In  essence, every aspect of the patient becomes defined by pain. 
  • Patients with chronic pain syndrome are universally depressed, and a high incidence of  breakdown in the family and social structure is present.
  • Functional brain imaging studies  of patients with chronic pain syndrome may reveal abnormalities in parts of the brain  that mediate nonconscious emotions. 
  • There may be genetic predispositions to chronic pain syndrome, and there may also be a  history of prior personal, emotional, or physical abuse. However, many patients have  neither of these predispositions, and such predispositions should never be assumed. 
  • Treatment for chronic pain syndrome should be multidisciplinary, including individual  and group psychological counseling when possible.
  • Treatment should be long term; at any  point in time, the treatment may change considerably, based on patient-clinician results  and experiences. 

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