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Overview of chronic pain

Tirohanga whānui ki te mamae karioi

If pain lasts for more than three months, or longer than the expected healing time, it's called chronic or persistent pain. In medicine, the word chronic means long-lasting.

Chronic pain is common. At least one in five people in New Zealand experience it. For some people this means they experience pain all the time and for others, the pain may come and go.

You may get chronic pain without any known cause or following a medical condition or injury, even if the injury has healed. It's like a fire alarm continuing to go off after the fire has been put out.

Chronic 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. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to live well with chronic pain.

Diagnosing chronic pain

Your doctor will take a detailed story of your pain and how it affects your everyday life. They may want to send you away with some questions and ask you to keep a diary.

This information can help them tailor your treatment to your needs. It can also be helpful for you to think about what your triggers are and how your pain affects you.

Getting your whānau/family or other support people involved in this process also helps.

Depending on what may have started your pain, 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.

Treating chronic pain

It's understandable that you expect pain to be relieved with medicine or medical procedures such as surgery. But chronic pain is a long-term condition caused by changes to your body that mean other approaches are needed to manage it.

Research has shown the most effective way of managing pain involves education, guidance in pain self-management, lifestyle changes and emotional and social support.

Medicines only have a small role to play in managing chronic pain as they only help a few people and it's normal not to find them useful. If you're taking a medicine, consider whether it's significantly reducing your pain and improving your quality of life. If it is not, you should stop taking it. But talk to your GP first, some medications need to be reduced gradually.

Surgery is not an option for most chronic pain. If it's offered, it's important to be aware that while surgery may treat a condition, you may still have pain and there is a risk surgery will make pain worse.

Self-care for chronic pain

Self-care is the most important part of managing your chronic pain and improving your quality of life. See Self-care for chronic pain for information about how you can help yourself.

Getting help for chronic pain

If you have chronic pain and it's affecting your quality of life, see your GP to work out what is going to help you.

Your GP may refer you to a psychologist, physiotherapist or occupational therapist.

If you have more complex pain problems or your pain is not responding to treatment, your GP may refer you to the Pain Management Team at the Burwood Pain Management Centre.

If your GP refers you to this service, you'll be offered a series of online videos or invited to attend a half-day seminar at Burwood Hospital. The videos and seminar explain some ways of dealing with chronic pain and will help you find out if you'll benefit from further treatment.

Pain management is a medical and clinical speciality. Because there are many factors that can contribute to the maintenance of the unhelpful changes in the nervous system in chronic pain, and lead to pain flare-up, many different types of professionals are involved in helping people to manage chronic pain. Pain management teams may include occupational therapists, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, social workers and psychologists.

Christchurch pain specialists recommend three books for people experiencing (chronic) pain. Explain Pain, Manage your pain, and Painful Yarns are all available for loan through Christchurch City Libraries, or you can buy them online.

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On the next page: Frequently asked questions about chronic pain

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed August 2021.


See also:

Neck pain

Page reference: 79019

Review key: HICHP-79018