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What is chronic pain

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Chronic pain usually develops after a trauma or injury and the pain continues causing problems after the injury itself has healed. Signals of pain can remain active in the nervous system for weeks, months or even years

Due to the stress of being in continuous pain, it is not uncommon for people experiencing chronic pain to develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue.

Common symptoms of chronic pain

Symptoms of chronic pain can include:

  • Constant pain that does not go away – this can be mild or severe.
  • A shooting, burning or aching sensation in the affected area.
  • Feelings of discomfort, soreness, tightness or stiffness.

Chronic pain can have a huge effect on your quality of life and the lives of your loved ones. The pain can be so severe that you have difficulty coping with work, hobbies and other day-to-day activities.

You may also feel anxiety and fear about what is causing the pain and these feelings can affect your ability to go about your day-to-day business. Irritability and frustration are also common feelings experienced by someone with chronic pain. This can also cause problems in your relationships with family and friends.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS)

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) is a long-lasting, severe pain that is usually triggered by an injury and persists for a long period of time. The pain is usually described as burning, stabbing or stinging, but can also include tingling and numbness. The slightest touch or change in temperature around the affected area can cause extreme pain and discomfort.

The pain is usually only found in one limb, but it can spread to other areas of the body. Medical research has found that around 1 in 3,800 people develop CRPS every year in the UK.

The symptoms and diagnosis of CRPS can be extremely complex and as such, you may be referred to several separate medical professionals to treat your condition.

It is thought that CRPS develops as a result of damage to the nervous system. This is usually as a result of an injury or trauma to the area. The original injury could have been in a finger or toe, but the pain can spread through the whole limb.

As well as the symptoms recognised with chronic pain, somebody with CRPS can also experience the following:

  • The limb feeling strange as though it is not part of your body, or that it is bigger or smaller than the opposite limb.
  • The skin may change colour – it can sometimes be red, hot and dry and then change to cold, blue and sweaty.
  • Changes to hair and nail growth and strength. They can grow quicker or slower, and become weak and brittle.
  • Stiffness and swelling of the joints.
  • Muscle spasms and tremors.
  • Limited movement and mobility in the affected area.
  • Problems sleeping and restlessness.
  • Areas of fragile bones in the affected limb.

These symptoms can severely reduce your mobility and make it increasingly difficult to get around.

If you suffer from complex regional pain syndrome, you may have periods of pain lasting a few days or weeks, called flare-ups, where the discomfort gets worse. Stress in particular can lead to flare-ups, which is why relaxation techniques are an important part of treating CRPS.

Treatment and living with chronic pain

It can be useful when you are experiencing chronic pain to keep a diary to track your pain. This can help doctors to understand and follow the pain you’re feeling and help them to adapt a treatment plan just for you. This diary should contain such things as any activities you have undertaken on a daily basis as well as the level of pain you have felt. This will also indicate how well you are coping with your pain and how much care and assistance you truly need.

It is important that the severity of your symptoms, the impact they’re having on your life and the type of pain you are experiencing are all assessed by specialist consultants before any treatment begins.

Treatment of chronic pain not only targets the pain itself, but also aims to improve your coping strategies to help you live with the pain. Treatment can take many forms including medication, counselling and physiotherapy. Sometimes surgery is necessary when the pain is extremely severe and other options have not been successful.

Medications – these work to mask the symptoms of the pain, but do not actually address the source of the pain. Painkillers are usually administered at a lower dose and gradually increased as required.

Counselling – chronic pain can have a huge impact on your emotional state. Counselling can help to reduce your stress levels, as well as address any other feelings you may be experiencing (e.g. depression, frustration, anxiety etc.). Negative emotions can increase your body’s sensitivity to pain, so managing and reducing them can improve your condition.

Pain management programmes – these programmes aim to teach you how to cope with your pain in day-to-day life and can be extremely beneficial to people living with chronic pain.

Physical therapy – this can help to improve mobility and movement in the affected area, which can give you greater abilities to carry out day-to-day tasks. It can also help you to recover from an injury which may be the cause of your pain.

Surgery – this is usually a last resort when other treatments have not been successful. Surgery can improve your symptoms with pain control systems which are inserted into the body and block or numb the pain by using medicine, electrical currents, heat or chemicals.

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