Your Doctor Says That You Have Chronic Pain: What Does That Mean?

Mar 18, 2013

Your injury was many months ago. You initially saw your primary care provider who sent you to a pain clinic. The provider at the pain clinic who evaluated you may have been a surgeon who told you to come back after you have gone to the interventional pain provider and physical therapist. You subsequently underwent evaluations and started care with each of these providers. You had this procedure and that procedure. You went to physical therapy. You did it all in the hopes that they would find the source of the pain and fix it. None of it really worked, though.

At best, some of them were helpful for a few days or weeks but pain seemed to always return to the level it was previously. So, you decided to go back to the surgeon. You underwent a surgery and followed it up with more physical therapy. Perhaps, you had to go through a revision of the surgery a few months later. Maybe the surgery or surgeries didn’t help. Maybe, your pain was worse afterwards. Or, maybe it helped for a few months, but again the pain returned. Then, you go to another pain clinic and the provider there tells you that you have chronic pain.

What does that mean?

Frequently, definitions of chronic pain characterize it as pain that lasts longer than three or six months and then leave it at that. While the timeframe is accurate, this definition leaves out a whole lot. There’s more to chronic pain than just the time frame. Let’s look at what more there is and come back to the timeframe in a bit.

The understanding that your pain is chronic signals a change in what your providers think is the primary cause of your pain. When pain is chronic, the source of your pain is no longer the initial injury that started the pain. Rather, if your pain is chronic, then the source of pain has become the nervous system. It’s no longer an orthopedic problem, but a nervous system problem.

What happens is that, once having an injury and coming to have pain, the nervous system can change. It can become stuck in a persistent state of reactivity. Over time, the nervous system becomes so sensitive that any little movement hurts. Leaning over hurts. Standing back up hurts. Sitting down and getting up from a chair hurt. Walking hurts and so on. These simple, everyday movements shouldn’t be painful; but they are. They are painful because the nervous system has become stuck in a persistent state of reactivity. This state of reactivity has led the nerves in the area of your initial injury and the corresponding nerves in the spinal cord and brain to become so sensitive that simple, everyday movements hurt.

Patients often come to think that these movements are painful because the initial orthopedic injury, such as to the spine, has made their spine permanently fragile. Along the way, they may have been told that they have degenerative disc disease. This way of making sense of the pain naturally leads you to think that you have a disease that is inevitably going to deteriorate your spine, making it more and more fragile. As such, it’s natural to think that simple, everyday movements hurt because the spine is so fragile.

Over the last several years, however, basic science has studied how commonly degenerative changes of the spine occur in people with chronic back and neck pain as well as how commonly degenerative changes occur in people without back or neck pain. It turns out that degenerative changes of the spine are as common, if not more common, in people without spine-related pain. Basic science has also tracked the natural outcomes of degenerative changes of the spine over many years. It turns out that most of the time degenerative changes get better. Sometimes, they stay the same, but they typically don't get worse.

With such research, we now know that “degenerative disc disease” is a misnomer. That is to say, it is a misleading term. Degenerative changes of the spine are neither a disease nor are they inevitably going to get worse. Now, I’ll save the details and references for another post, because the issue of degenerative disc disease is such a big topic. For now, you can visit the content page on degenerative disc disease at the Institute’s web page.

Suffice it to say that it is not accurate to think of “chronic pain” as a long-lasting acute injury, such as an orthopedic condition of the spine. The initial injury that started the pain may have long since healed. Rather, chronic pain is a nervous system condition whereby the nervous system is stuck in a persistent state of reactivity that has made the nerves highly sensitive. As such, simple, everyday movements hurt.

Besides the term “chronic pain,” researchers and providers call this condition “central sensitization.” The nerves at the site of the injury, say, for example, your low back, are part of the peripheral nervous system. These nerves send chemical information, what we might call a ‘pain signal,’ to the spinal cord and from there the signal takes an elevator up to the brain, where there, it registers as pain in the low back. The spinal cord and brain make up the central nervous system. With chronic pain, the peripheral nerves at the site of your pain, for example, your low back, and the central nervous system have become stuck in a persistent state of reactivity that leads them to react like a ‘hair trigger.’ Any little movement can set them off.

Often, with chronic pain, the site of pain is also sensitive to touch or pressure. Pushing on the area causes pain. A simple bump is likely to cause more pain than it should, were it not for the nervous system’s reactivity and sensitivity. Sometimes, in more severe cases, simple touch can hurt.

Patients with chronic pain are not making this stuff up. It’s really happening and it is real pain. What’s happening is that the nervous system problem is maintaining the pain.

So, when your provider tells you that you have chronic pain, it means that he or she no longer sees your condition as primarily an orthopedic problem, but a nervous system problem. The timeframe of three to six months is important because the pain of most acute injuries subsides after this number of months. Sometimes, of course, pain continues and becomes chronic. In these cases, as described above, the nervous system reorganizes and becomes sensitized. In this way, the pain of an acute injury transitions to the pain of central sensitization, or chronic pain.

So, your provider tells you that you have chronic pain. Now what? Just as your pain has transitioned from acute pain to chronic pain, you must transition your treatment strategies. Under your provider’s direction, you will likely do two broad categories of things. First, you will likely stop undergoing orthopedic treatments, such as spinal injections, surgeries, and physical therapies that are geared towards resolving an injury. Second, you will start obtaining treatments for the nervous system problem that you now have. There are a number of them that are proven effective. What are these?

Before listing these treatments, a brief caveat is in order. A number of treatments are proven effective, but “effective” does not mean curative. We do not have any cures for chronic pain. This fact brings us to another important part of the definition of “chronic pain.” Chronic pain is chronic. The word “chronic” itself means that it will last indefinitely. It doesn’t mean terminal. You won’t die from it. Rather, what it means is that it is not fixable and it is something you will likely have for the rest of your natural life.

Nonetheless, there are a number of treatments that are effective in the sense that they have all been shown in research to either reduce pain or improve functioning or reduce the need for on-going healthcare services, including the use of opioid medications. The known effective treatments for chronic pain are the following:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Relaxation exercises, including mindfulness-based therapies
  • Mild aerobic exercise, including pool therapy
  • Anti-epileptic medications
  • Antidepressant medications, particularly tricyclic antidepressants
  • When done altogether in a coordinated fashion, these therapies are called a chronic pain rehabilitation program

The common denominator of all these therapies is that they target the nervous system and reduce its reactivity over time. All of them have multiple clinical trials showing their effectiveness.

Recently, a few clinical trials of yoga and tai chi have been published showing that these too are effective. It seems reasonable given their quieting effect on the nervous system. However, because of the insufficient number of studies, I think it is too soon to draw firm conclusions. My guess, though, is that more studies will come in time and that these therapies will also some day firmly be established as effective. Many chronic pain rehabilitation programs already incorporate them.

Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD

Date of last modification: March 18, 2013

About the author: Dr. McAllister is the executive director and founder of the Institute for Chronic Pain (ICP). The ICP is an educational and public policy think tank. Our mission is to lead the field in making pain management more empirically supported. Additionally, the ICP provides scientifically accurate information on chronic pain that is approachable to patients and their families. Dr. McAllister is also the clinical director of pain services for Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (CKRI), part of Allina Health, in Minneapolis, MN. Among other services, CKRI provides chronic pain rehabilitation services on a residential and outpatient basis.

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