‘Chronic pain’ is defined by doctors as pain that lasts for longer than three months. It can vary in severity, from mild to very severe.
Chronic pain is a pain which goes on beyond the normal time it takes the body to heal itself after injury, illness or surgery, or occurs in diseases where healing does not take place. Usually chronic pain is present even though there is no ongoing harm being done within the body. This is because in chronic pain the body’s pain system becomes over-sensitive and is very easily triggered. The person who has chronic pain may experience a lot of pain, but without any physical damage being done to the body. In this sense, often the problem is the pain itself.
You can think of pain as being like a car alarm going off. Someone who does not have chronic pain will usually only feel pain when their body is damaged in some way: their ‘car alarm’ only goes off when the car is broken into or damaged.
For someone with chronic pain, the ‘car alarm’ is far too sensitive and goes off when there is no damage being done. It is as if the car alarm is triggered by a breath of wind, or a cat walking by. In this way, pain can be triggered by everyday events and activities – for example standing for too long, becoming stressed, or cold weather.
In chronic pain there is no ongoing harm or damage being done to the body. Rather the problem is the pain itself – like an over-sensitive alarm system giving ‘false alarms’.
Some people may have a diagnosis or clear reason why their chronic pain has developed. For example they might have a back problem, or a condition like arthritis or fibromyalgia which has resulted in their body’s pain system becoming overly sensitive.
For many other people, no clear physical or medical cause is found to explain their pain. In these cases it is often because although the body’s pain system has changed and become oversensitive (which gives rise to pain), it is hard for investigations to show this. Not having a clear cause for the pain does not mean that the pain is not real.
Chronic pain is not only physically unpleasant, but is also emotionally unpleasant: it can create distress, frustration, anger, anxiety and low mood for many people.