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Overview of persistent pain

If pain lasts for more than three months, or longer than the expected healing time, it's called persistent pain. It's also called chronic pain.

A medical condition or injury can be the original cause of the pain. But with persistent pain, the pain continues even after the initial cause has healed. It's like a fire alarm continuing to go off after the fire has been put out.

This video from the Pain Management Network explains how pain works.

Persistent pain can affect your ability to function day to day. It can be draining and frustrating. It can also affect your relationships with whānau/family, friends and work colleagues. But there are many things you can do to live well with persistent pain.

Diagnosing persistent pain

One in five people in New Zealand experience persistent pain at some point in their lives. If you have pain lasting for longer than three months, your doctor may diagnose you as having persistent pain. This can be a confusing and frustrating diagnosis, and you may have many questions. You'll find some of the answers to those questions in Frequently asked questions about persistent pain.

Depending on what may have caused your pain to start, your doctor may organise tests to investigate further.

It's important to know that features in X-rays and scans may not correspond with pain levels. For example, one person could have a knee X-ray showing mild arthritis and be in lots of pain. Someone else could have a very damaged looking knee but no pain.

For this reason, it's important not to solely rely on tests to diagnose persistent pain. This can delay starting appropriate treatment for the condition.

Treating persistent pain

Persistent pain can affect any part of your body. It doesn't matter what started the problem or where it is in your body. Your pain is coming from your brain. This means there are common techniques and strategies that can help with all types of pain.

Treating persistent pain focuses on understanding and managing your pain. It also focuses on improving your quality of life. The causes and triggers of persistent pain are complex, and treating it needs several approaches.

Medicines only have a small role to play in managing persistent pain. Medicines are helpful for some people, but not all. If you're taking a medicine, consider whether it's significantly reducing your pain and improving your quality of life. If it isn't, you should stop taking it. But talk to your GP first, some medications need to be reduced gradually.

Surgery only has a role if there's a clear treatable cause for your pain. Even after surgery, many people can still experience persistent pain.

Pain management is a clinical speciality. It should be the next step after the investigation of the problem rather than the last resort.

Pain management teams may include occupational therapists, physicians, nurses, physiotherapists, social workers and psychologists. They can all help.

Pain management programmes support people with self-management of pain. This makes you a very important part of the wider team.

The video Understanding pain: What to do about it in less than five minutes explains more about persistent pain, and some things you can do to help overcome it.

Self-care for persistent pain

Self-care is the most important part of managing persistent pain. Healthy lifestyle changes can be very helpful. These include:

It's particularly important to sleep well and manage stress.

Living with persistent pain has more information about how you can help yourself.

It's important to work out what's important to you and find ways to stay involved with these things. Don’t let pain take over your life. Talk to your whānau/family so they can understand what you're going through. If they understand, they can provide support where you need it.

Getting help for persistent pain

If you're experiencing persistent pain and it's affecting your quality of life, you should see your GP. You can talk to your GP to work out what's going to help you.

Most people with persistent pain don't need to see a specialist pain management team. You can do well with support from your general practice team and services in the community. If you have more complex pain problems, you GP can refer you to the Burwood Pain Management Centre.

If your GP refers you to this service you'll be invited to attend an introductory seminar that explains some ways of dealing with persistent pain, and will help to find out if you'll benefit from further treatment.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Diagnosing persistent pain

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by Burwood Pain Management Centre clinical coordinator. Last reviewed August 2018.

See also:

Neck pain

Sources

Page reference: 79019

Review key: HICHP-79018