Many Americans experience chronic pain, and there are many holistic and medical techniques available to help you manage yours.

The experience of chronic pain is very personal. What bothers one person badly might not trouble another very much. For some people, pain may resonate as more emotional than physical. For others, it overwhelms the body, but they battle it with their mind. However it is experienced — as mild, bothersome, or high-impact — chronic pain affects more than 50 million Americans. Around 7% of sufferers describe their pain as high-impact, causing persistent psychological distress and seriously interfering with daily activities. Current research estimates chronic pain adds up to nearly $300 billion a year in lost productivity — and the price it exacts on health and happiness is far greater. Studies have found 25–85% of people with chronic pain also contend with severe depression.

Most Common Types — and Causes — of Chronic Pain

In a study published in the journal Pain, researchers used pain info from the CDC's National Health Interview Survey to get a picture of what is causing all this discomfort and agony. They found four to be the most common troublemakers:

And the study found 10 common causes of pain:

  • Injury
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Obesity
  • Muscle & ligament strains and sprains
  • Tendinitis
  • Bursitis
  • Pinched nerves
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Bunions
  • Tissue tears (like to the meniscus)

Once chronic pain sets in, it can spread. A problem in one area of the body, say foot pain, can throw off your gait, putting a strain on your lower back that causes chronic pain there as well. Or pain may settle into your lower back first and throw off your gait so that your knees start hurting.

Chronic pain can also develop from a chronic disease, like diabetes. Five million people — that's 20% of the 26 million with diagnosed diabetes — have diabetic nerve pain. It can make it difficult to walk and can interfere with sleep.

Less common causes of chronic pain include illnesses like fibromyalgia that trigger body-wide aches that don't have a specific trigger, such as a torn tendon or arthritic vertebrae. Migraines and some cancers are also culprits. But whatever the cause, untreated, chronic pain can turn your life upside down.

Non-Pharmacological Management Techniques for Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is real, but the perception of and reaction to pain is highly variable. You can do a lot to put chronic pain in a back corner instead of center stage.

Some management techniques involve changing your reaction to pain — especially useful when there is no treatment or therapy that will make it go away entirely. One study in Pain found four areas that made a difference for patients:

  • Hypnosis
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Hypnotic cognitive therapy
  • Pain education

Researchers gave volunteers with chronic pain four sessions of those treatments and found that all forms had a medium to large impact on pain intensity — and the improvements lasted through 12 months of follow-up.

The Cleveland Clinic found six other techniques that helped lessen the impact of chronic pain:

And for conditions like fibromyalgia, exercise, good quality sleep and a diet free of simple sugars, added syrups, simple carbs, red and processed meats, egg yolks and cheese, along with stress-relief techniques, can help.

Medical Treatments for Chronic Pain

Medical treatments for chronic pain include:

  • Physical, occupational and massage therapy
  • TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)
  • Topical creams containing capsaicin, cortisone, or NSAIDs
  • Sometimes cortisone shots are helpful
  • Surgery can be a very positive solution for joint pain and other injuries.
  • Using pain medications is also smart — sometimes. OTC anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, can ease discomfort, as can prescription NSAIDs, and there are times when opioids are needed. But always combine medications and surgery with aggressive, self-directed solutions that relieve stress and upgrade your lifestyle habits.

Chronic pain is definitely a pain in the (fill in the blank), but you can make it more manageable. Talk to a pain management specialist who focuses on the widest range of approaches so you can find the plan that's right for you and get the relief you need.

In 1985 when quarterback Joe Theismann had his fibula and tibia shattered by a tackle, it ended his NFL career — a career in which he'd suffered seven broken noses, a broken collarbone, and broken hands and ribs. "People would say that it was a tragedy… but…it was a blessing," he's said. "I'd become somewhat of a self-absorbed individual and didn't really care much about a lot of things except myself. And ever since that day…I've tried to be a better person."

Yes, Chronic Pain Alters Your Personality

All that physical pain can make it difficult to be your best self. That's been confirmed by a study in the European Journal of Pain. Seems people with chronic pain, have very low levels of the personality-influencing neurotransmitter glutamate in their frontal cortex, triggering emotional dysregulation and increasing anxiety.

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