Options for managing chronic pain

Many types of chronic pain are not curable, but they are treatable.

An acupuncture needle is used on a person's hand.
Acupuncture is categorized by the National Institutes of Health as a complementary treatment type. Photo: Pexels/Anthony Shkraba.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 50 million adults (20.4% of the population) in the United States experience chronic pain, and 8% experience high-impact chronic pain. Chronic pain is defined as having pain every day for at least three months. Those with severe pain are likely to have worse health status, and chronic pain is the most common cause of long-term disability, more than stroke or kidney failure.

What is acute pain, chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain?

Although unpleasant, pain is a necessary signal from the nervous system to let us know that something is wrong. There are three kinds of pain: acute pain, chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain. Acute pain is the result of disease or injury to tissues; it can be diagnosed and treated. It is “self-limiting,” meaning that it lasts for a defined amount of time. Examples of acute pain include pain after surgery or pain caused by a broken bone.

Chronic pain is different. According to the National Institutes of Health, chronic pain is thought to be a chronic disease condition. Chronic pain lasts for a long period of time and is resistant to many medical treatments. High-impact chronic pain is a more debilitating chronic pain that interferes with an individual’s ability to participate in work and social activities, and difficulties in completing activities of daily living such as self-care activities. Many types of chronic pain are not curable, but they are treatable. Examples of chronic pain are pain that results from nerve damage due to stroke, fibromyalgia or arthritis.

Since chronic pain can be so debilitating and difficult to treat, finding a treatment is often a difficult and confusing task. What follows is a brief overview of the types of available treatments. While looking for treatment, it is very important not to be fooled by dishonest practices and claims.

Definitions and categorization of treatment

The National Institutes of Health breaks down treatment into two broad categories: traditional and complementary.

Traditional

  • Medicine, including over-the-counter pain relievers and prescribed opioids.
  • Therapy such as:
    • Physical therapy
    • Occupational therapy
    • Behavioral therapy

Complementary

Michigan State University Extension offers an interactive six-week workshop that can be categorized as a behavior therapy or as a self-directed intervention. It is called Chronic Pain PATH (Personal Action Towards Health) program, and it is offered in person and online. Chronic Pain PATH is led by trained facilitators and covers topics such as effective communication, action plans, problem solving, techniques to deal with difficult emotions and appropriate use of medication.

MSU Extension also offers Tai Chi for Arthritis and Falls Prevention, a complementary treatment for chronic pain. Tai chi is a learned practice that consists of certain postures, and slow gentle movement in combination with deep breathing and mental focus. Studies have shown tai chi to help with pain management, particularly for individuals with fibromyalgia, back pain and knee pain from osteoarthritis. MSU Extension offers various educational programs for adults, families, and children that focus on lifestyle changes to promote healthy eating and wellness. To learn more about ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle, visit MSU Extension's Food & Health website. 

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