The stereotypical view of pain is a sensation that only lasts a short time and doesn’t have long-term effects.
Unfortunately this is a simplistic view, and far from the lived experience of many people. In reality, pain is very complex, so much that the International Association for the Study of Pain has developed a definition for pain as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage’.
All pain is highly personalised and subjective. People experience different degrees of pain in similar situations. The result is that pain often can only be truly appreciated by the person experiencing it.
According to Pain Australia, pain causes a reaction to protect the part of the body that is painful.
‘Everyone who has experienced pain knows what it is, but everyone’s pain is different. Many different factors affect an individual’s experience of pain and the exact contributors to pain are also different between individuals and between situations.’
‘Pain is one way our body’s protective systems keep us safe. Danger detectors in the body send information to the brain, which may or may not create pain based on all the other information available, as well as previous experiences.’
Danger detectors signal when tissue is approaching its safe limit, so most pain is designed to prevent tissue damage. When tissue is damaged, the danger detectors become much more sensitive.
Research has also shown that psychological and social factors can powerfully influence pain by complex mechanisms in the brain.
Pain Australia says that persistent or chronic pain (long-lasting pain that goes on for more than three months, or past normal tissue healing time) will usually involve the pain system becoming overprotective.
As a result of this, a person can have pain even when their tissues are safe, because the pain system has become more effective at protecting a certain body part.
Because many factors affect pain, there are many things you can do to change pain.
Recognising that pain is more than a physical sensation, but is influenced by sleep, exercise, your general health, attitudes, beliefs, mood, your environment and the people around you, means that all these things can provide new and better ways for you to change your pain, moment to moment and over time.
According to Pain Australia, the pain system can learn to become less protective. The best strategies to achieve this are activity based, psychological skills and self-management strategies. Active strategies include learning about pain, gradually increasing your activity and movement, working on thoughts, emotions and coping skills.
Multiple approaches needed
Finding supportive healthcare professionals is an important part of managing chronic pain. Developing a care plan with your GP, which may involve other health professionals such as your pharmacist, a physiotherapist or clinical psychologist is also important.
Pain Australia says chronic pain is best managed with a multidisciplinary approach that addresses the physical, psychological and environmental or social factors that influence your pain, with several primary health care professionals working with you as a team.
As this may include medical interventions and medicines, it’s important to talk to your pharmacist who can help in planning a multidisciplinary approach as part of your care plan.
To raise awareness of chronic pain and some of the effective management strategies, the self-help group and health promotion charity Chronic Pain Australia organises a National Pain Week which is held in late July.
The week aims to draw attention to the plight of people suffering from chronic pain and, by doing so, reduce the social and other barriers related to living with chronic pain. Find out more here.