Chronic pain is an invisible burden carried by an estimated 20% of all Australians. Ongoing pain affects all aspects of a person’s home and work life. Feelings of loss and grief are a part of everyday life for those experiencing chronic pain. They may also experience a fear that life may never return to normal. These feelings are rarely shared with the people closest to them. It is important that we talk about pain. In order to talk about pain it is important to know a little about what it is and why it happens so that we can support family and friends who might be going through this by themselves.
Chronic pain is different from the acute pain that most of us have experienced at some point in our lives. Acute pain acts as a warning system for the body. It tells us when we are in danger of sustaining an injury, or occurs while an injury is in the process of healing. For example when you fall and sprain your ankle, pain is instant and it hurts to move as the sprained ligaments are put under stress. The pain slowly improves as the ligaments heal and inflammation settles. This typically happens over 6-8 weeks and doesn’t last beyond 4-6months.
Chronic pain is longer ongoing pain beyond 4-6 months. The initial injury has now healed but pain continues. This is because the brain and nervous system has become ‘sensitised’ to pain. Even normal and safe movements may feel very painful. Like a back which has been so sore for so long that even little things like reaching for the phone is agony. This can lead to muscle tightness, emotional distress, movement anxiety and fear of re-injury. Recovery is a slow process requiring understanding pain, gradually progressing movement, strengthening the joint and returning to normal home and work routine often while still feeling pain.
There is plenty of hope for people with chronic pain! Substantial research exists for new medical treatments and physiotherapy techniques and this area continues to grow. The best way to tackle chronic pain it to recognise it and seek treatment for it from a team of healthcare professional including your GP, physiotherapist and mental health practitioner. The best way to help someone else with chronic pain is to talk openly with them about their experience with pain without judgement, and give them patience and support through their journey to recovery.