Living With Chronic Pain

Many Americans live with some kind of long-term pain. Learn about common types of chronic pain — and the latest strategies for coping.

Bones and Joints October 24, 2014

Strategies for dealing with pain that persists

Most pain is mercifully fleeting — like that from a sliced finger or the ache of an overworked muscle.

But for some, chronic pain is a constant companion. And that can take a toll both physically and emotionally.

"Chronic pain significantly reduces a person’s ability to perform simple things we take for granted — for example, going to the grocery store or dining out with a spouse," says Matthew Jaycox, MD, a pain medicine specialist at Rush.

What's more, chronic pain can create a vicious cycle: Constant aches can lead to isolation and depression, which can make existing pain worse.

Types of chronic pain 

Chronic pain generally refers to any pain that persists longer than six months and severely limits your quality of life.

"It comes in many forms, but by far the most common type we see is low back pain," says Jaycox. In fact, low back pain is the second-leading reason people miss work, behind only the common cold.

Other conditions that can trigger or cause chronic pain include the following:

Focus on feeling better 

"One of the great things about being at an academic medical center is having access to a variety of techniques that simply aren't practical in other settings," says Jaycox.

So in addition to medicines and physical therapy, strategies to help with pain can include special devices and emotional support:

  • Spinal cord stimulator implant. This device delivers a mild electric current to relieve pain — especially in people who continue to have back pain after surgery. “It replaces the deep burning pain that shoots down the leg with a sensation like a mild tingling,” Jaycox says.
  • Intraspinal pump. This device offers a pain-control option if oral medicines cause too many side effects. It delivers smaller, tolerable amounts of pain medicine directly to the spine.
  • Counseling. “It’s simply impossible to suffer from severe pain day after day and not have some degree of emotional change in your life,” Jaycox says. For this reason, pain management at Rush often includes the help of a mental health professional. Through counseling, patients can learn to address the emotional consequences of pain — and find positive ways to handle the stress and strain, he says.

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