Pain is personal. Everyone reacts to pain differently. Some people may feel they need to put on a brave face and keep the complaining to a minimum, while others feel the need to talk about it and get immediate help. But pain is our body's way of letting us know that something may be wrong, and it shouldn't be ignored. It's important to accurately describe your pain so that you and your healthcare provider can identify the cause and take appropriate action.
Acute pain vs chronic pain
Pain is complex and can show itself in different ways. We’re all familiar with acute pain—the sensation triggered by our body’s nervous system to alert us to actual or possible injury. It usually starts suddenly. It can last for hours, days or weeks, but usually goes away when the body heals. Think surgery, broken bones, kidney stones, and cuts and burns. Some people with acute pain may go on to develop long-lasting (or chronic) pain.
Chronic pain is pain that lasts three months or longer. A person may have pain even after an injury heals. Some people may suffer from chronic pain even where there is no past injury (or tissue or nerve damage) at all. Chronic pain may be caused by tissue damage from trauma or inflammation, nerve damage, or a dysfunction of the body’s nervous system. Examples of chronic pain include back pain, headache, cancer pain, and arthritis. People with chronic pain often also experience fatigue, sleep problems and mood changes. Chronic pain is the most common cause of long-term disability in the U.S.
When pain starts to interfere with your personal relationships and your ability to do your normal daily activities of living, it’s time to make a medical appointment.
Ways to assess your pain
It’s not always easy to express what you’re feeling, especially when you’re in pain. And unfortunately, there is no precise test that can measure or locate your pain. So healthcare providers rely on you to explain how it feels, when it started, and where the pain is.
Healthcare providers often use tools to help assess the pain you are experiencing. For example, they may ask you to describe your pain. Does your pain feel sore, throbbing, dull, tender, prickling, etc.? Some may ask you to rate your pain from 0 to 10, where 0 means you have no pain, and 10 is the most intense pain imaginable. Or they may show you pictures of various faces with different expressions of pain and ask you to select the face that best matches how you feel about your pain.
Additionally, your healthcare provider will likely perform a physical examination and may order blood tests, X-rays, or other diagnostic tests to help find the cause of the pain. You may also be asked to keep a pain diary to bring to your appointments.
If you are suffering from pain lasting 3 months or longer, answer the questions on this chronic pain tool and share it with your doctor.
Chronic pain is not always curable, but keep in mind that just as pain is a very personal experience, your pain management strategy should be tailored to your specific needs.
And lastly, do not be ashamed. If you are in pain, tell your healthcare provider. If you are not getting the help you need, it may be time to find a provider who specializes in treating chronic pain. Your relief starts with you and your willingness to speak up!
Freda Lewis-Hall, MD, DFAPA, is a physician and the Chief Medical Officer at Pfizer Inc.
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