Chronic pain is pain that persists or recurs for > 3 mo, persists > 1 mo after resolution of an acute tissue injury, or accompanies a nonhealing lesion. Causes include chronic disorders (eg, cancer, arthritis, diabetes) and injuries (eg, herniated disk, torn ligament), and many primary pain disorders (eg, neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia, chronic headache). Various drugs and psychologic treatments are used.
Unresolved, long-lasting disorders (eg, cancer, RA, herniated disk) that produce ongoing nociceptive stimuli may account completely for chronic pain. Alternatively, injury, even mild injury, may lead to long-lasting changes (sensitization) in the nervous system—from peripheral receptors to the cerebral cortex—that may produce persistent pain in the absence of ongoing nociceptive stimuli. With sensitization, discomfort that is due to a nearly resolved disorder and might otherwise be perceived as mild or trivial is instead perceived as significant pain. Psychologic factors may also amplify persistent pain. Thus, chronic pain commonly appears out of proportion to identifiable physical processes. In some cases (eg, chronic back pain after injury), the original precipitant of pain is obvious; in others (eg, chronic headache, atypical facial pain, chronic abdominal pain), the precipitant is remote or occult.
In most patients, physical processes are undeniably involved in sustaining chronic pain and are sometimes (eg, in cancer pain) the main factor. However, even in these patients, psychologic factors usually also play a role. Patients who have to continually prove that they are sick to obtain medical care, insurance coverage, or work relief may unconsciously reinforce their pain perceptions, particularly when litigation is involved. This response differs from malingering, which is conscious exaggeration of symptoms for secondary gain (eg, time off, disability payments). Various factors in the patient's environment (eg, family members, friends) may reinforce behaviors that perpetuate chronic pain.
Chronic pain can lead to psychologic problems. Constant, unremitting pain limits activities and may cause depression and anxiety, interrupt sleep, and interfere with almost all activities. Distinguishing cause from effect is often difficult.
Symptoms and Signs
Chronic pain often leads to vegetative signs (eg, lassitude, sleep disturbance, decreased appetite, loss of taste for food, weight loss, diminished libido, constipation), which develop gradually; depression may develop. Patients may become inactive, withdraw socially, and become preoccupied with physical health. Psychologic and social impairment may be severe, causing virtual lack of function.
Some patients, particularly those without a clear-cut ongoing cause, have a history of failed medical and surgical treatments, multiple (and duplicative) diagnostic tests, use of many drugs (sometimes involving abuse or addiction), and inappropriate use of health care.
An organic cause should always be sought—even if a prominent psychologic contribution to the pain is likely. Physical processes associated with the pain should be evaluated appropriately and characterized. However, once a full evaluation is done, repeating tests in the absence of new findings is not useful. The best approach is often to stop testing and focus on relieving pain and restoring function.
The effect of pain on the patient's life should be evaluated; evaluation by an occupational therapist may be necessary. Formal psychiatric evaluation should be considered if a coexisting psychiatric disorder (eg, major depression) is suspected as cause or effect.
Specific causes should be treated. Early, aggressive treatment of acute pain is always preferable and may limit or prevent sensitization and remodeling and hence prevent progression to chronic pain.
Drugs or physical methods may be used. Psychologic and behavioral treatments are usually helpful. Many patients who have marked functional impairment or who do not respond to a reasonable attempt at management by their physician benefit from the multidisciplinary approach available at a pain clinic.
Many patients prefer to have their pain treated at home, even though an institution may offer more advanced modalities of pain management. Also, pain control may be compromised by certain practices in institutions; for example, they restrict visiting hours, use of televisions and radios (which provide useful distraction), and use of heating pads (for fear of thermal injury).
Analgesics include NSAIDs, opioids, and adjuvant analgesics (eg, antidepressants, anticonvulsants—see Adjuvant Analgesic Drugs and Table 4: Drugs for Neuropathic Pain). One or more drugs may be appropriate. Adjuvant analgesics are most commonly used for neuropathic pain. For persistent, moderate-to-severe pain that impairs function, opioids should be considered after determining the following:
Prescription drug abuse may be a problem, and physicians should not offer long-term opioid therapy unless they can assess risk of abuse, monitor patients appropriately, and respond reasonably to problematic drug use. As pain lessens, patients usually need help reducing use of opioids. If depression coexists with pain, antidepressants should be used.
Depending on the condition, trigger point injection, joint or spinal injections, nerve blocks, or neuraxial infusion may be appropriate.
Many patients benefit from physical therapy or occupational therapy. Spray-and-stretch techniques can relieve myofascial trigger points. Some patients require an orthosis. Spinal cord stimulation may be appropriate.
Behavioral treatments can improve patient function, even without reducing pain. Patients should keep a diary of daily activities to pinpoint areas amenable to change. The physician should make specific recommendations for gradually increasing physical activity and social engagement. Activities should be prescribed in gradually increasing units of time; pain should not, if at all possible, be allowed to abort the commitment to greater function. When activities are increased in this way, reports of pain often decrease.
Various cognitive techniques of pain control (eg, relaxation training, distraction techniques, hypnosis, biofeedback) may be useful. Patients may be taught to use distraction by guided imagery (organized fantasy evoking calm and comfort—eg, imagining resting on a beach or lying in a hammock). Other cognitive-behavioral techniques (eg, self-hypnosis) may require training by specialists.
Behavior of family members or fellow workers that reinforces pain behavior (eg, constant inquiries about the patient's health or insistence that the patient do no chores) should be discouraged. The physician should avoid reinforcing pain behavior, discourage maladaptive behaviors, applaud progress, and provide pain treatment while emphasizing return of function.
Last full review/revision February 2007 by Russell K. Portenoy, MD
Content last modified October 2013