Understanding persistent pain


by Maureen Allen, MD

Pain is a universal experience that can feel scary and worrisome at times. As much as we dislike the experience of pain it has an essential role to play in our body, which is to protect and warn us of potential harm. Without our ability to respond and pay attention to pain our life would be in danger.

Think of your pain system like the security system we use in our house. When the alarm is triggered it calls us to action to pay attention and seek out the problem until the “all clear” has been signaled or the problem that triggered the alarm system has been addressed. It seems clear and straight forward most of the time but occasionally there will be a glitch within the system that fails to feed-back accurate information despite the volume of the alarm or the intensity of that experience. If the glitch occurs in our home security system, we call the repair man to come and “fix” the problem but for 1 in 5 Canadians repairing the glitch in our pain system can be difficult but not impossible. This is called persistent pain.

Persistent pain or chronic pain is a complex illness which can feel similar to acute pain, but the two conditions are very different. Acute pain or short term pain occurs when you have damage or possible damage to your tissue like a broken wrist, whereas persistent pain occurs long after tissue has healed and is less about damage and more about your central nervous system.  It is often described as a volume control issue where the intensity or volume of pain you experience is left on moderate to high and never returns to the “off” position.

Persistent pain can take over your life.

sad-505857_1280-1024x577-5409909We are not sure why some people get persistent pain while others do not but health professionals with the help of science are beginning to understand the nervous system changes that cause persistent pain and find more effective ways to help patients manage this life changing illness.

Learning to live with persistent pain can be challenging especially when told everything is healed and you need to get on with your life. It is similar to being told you have a condition like insulin dependent diabetes. Without help, support and new knowledge of the illness you would feel overwhelmed and frightened.

Don’t wait for your pain to get better before you start to make changes. Reach out to your local Pain self management clinic to get more information and how you can be referred.

My next blog post will touch on some important principles, such as how to get active with your persistent pain and whether medications can play a role in your recovery.

Maureen Allen, MD Director of Emergency Services St. Martha’s Regional Hospital

Antigonish, N.S.

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