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Your guide to chronic pain—frequently asked questions from patients in pain

Chronic pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical care, because it can impact every aspect of your life, not just your physical state. Even though chronic pain is widespread, it’s also widely misunderstood. To help keep you informed as you make medical decisions, our experts have come together to give you answers to the most common questions they hear from chronic pain patients.

How can I tell if I’m feeling acute pain or chronic pain?

Both acute and chronic pain are major health issues for the US, but many people remain confused about the classifications for pain, and where their pain fits in.

Acute pain is the normal physiological response to injury—imagine the shock of pain you feel when you poke your finger or touch a hot stove. Acute pain develops quickly, can be intense, and leaves again over a short period of time—most incidents within three months.

Chronic pain is pain that lasts over six months, or an inordinately long time, given the injury in question. It’s caused when pain signals fire from the brain long after the recovery from the injury. One of the biggest causes of chronic pain is damage to peripheral nerves after the initial injury. Even after healing, the damaged nerves continue to transmit pain signals throughout the body.

Is my chronic pain just a side effect of getting older?

It’s a common assumption that chronic pain is just a natural part of aging. Of course, as you age, some physical wear and tear is natural, which can cause minor aches and pains. However, debilitating chronic pain is not normal and can happen at any age. 

In some cases, your chronic pain may not have an obvious cause. But for most, the pain starts after an injury or because of an underlying health condition. Arthritis, spinal deterioration, and nerve damage, or past injuries are some of the top causes of developing pain.

When should I seek treatment for my chronic pain?  

If your pain has lasted longer than six months, seek treatment. Ignoring the issue may make the underlying cause worse, and can make it more difficult to treat and find relief.

How should I prepare for my first appointment for pain management?

Get copies of your medical records—you’ll want to show previous medical diagnoses, treatment history, and history of pain, as well as a list of your providers, tests performed, diagnoses, treatments, known drug allergies, and medications. Be prepared to talk about what you have tried, what helped, and what did not.

Be ready on your end. Write down questions before the appointment to make sure the most important things are discussed. Consider bringing someone with you to the appointment to help listen and ask questions.

What types of treatments are available for chronic pain?

There are a few tiers of treatment for chronic pain:

Medication and non-invasive therapies: Medications like anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, and potentially some anti-depressants, which have been shown to have a positive impact on chronic pain. Physical therapy is often a first step in working thru chronic pain, and the therapy team at iSpine Clinics works with patients to help improve their function, range of motion and endurance, which often leads to reducing or eliminating chronic pain.

Injections and advanced procedures: Injections like nerve blocks or spinal injections can numb pain for an extended period of time while you undergo physical therapy or rehabilitation to strengthen your body.

Minimally-invasive procedures and implants: Surgical implant or spinal cord stimulation, which interact directly with the source of your pain—your spinal cord. Disrupting at this point can be a definitive block for pain signals. For some patients an implant is a less invasive and oftentimes more productive step than surgery.

Alternative treatments: Some people experiencing chronic pain will also try aromatherapy, biofeedback, massages or meditation.

Should I only take medications when I’m having a lot of pain?

Medication may treat a symptom, but it’s important to find the source of your pain to help heal. Pain is easier to control when it’s mild, so if you take your medication regularly as prescribed (even if you don’t feel pain), you can stave off severe symptoms.

Are all pain medications addictive?

The fear of taking addictive meds to control long-term pain can be alarming and causes some patients to avoid seeking treatment. There are a variety of non-opioid medications available, and you should work with your practitioner to find the right combination for you.

It’s important to understand the risk factors for opioid addiction and to speak with your pain management specialist to plan a comfortable course of action. Some of the key risk factors for opioid addiction include:

  • Living in a rural area
  • Lower income level
  • Higher or more frequent doses of opioid painkillers
  • A history or family history of addiction or mental illness

At iSpine Clinics we offer medication management therapy, to try to help reduce a patient’s opioid intake and replace them with non-opioid medication. It can take time, but we often can find a combination of classes of medications that help meet a patient’s unique needs.

How much relief can I expect from treatment?

Measuring and treating pain isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation—everyone experiences pain differently, which is another reason why chronic pain is so often misunderstood. 

To best treat your pain, your pain specialist will assess factors like the type of pain you’re in, the cause of your pain (if known), as well as your age and overall health. The best treatments will combine strategies, including medications, lifestyle, and physical and mental therapies.

It is important to keep in mind that progress can be slow—the goal is to manage – not cure – chronic pain so that you can eventually return to your daily life.

Will I suffer from chronic pain for the rest of my life?

Not necessarily. If you’re experiencing pain, it’s important to know you have options. Talk with your doctor, or set up an Interventional Pain Consultation at iSpine Clinics in the Twin Cities. With proper treatment, you can live a full and normal life after experiencing chronic pain.