By Dr. Jeffrey McWhorter, D.C., M.S.R., A.R.T. (founder, owner, and operator, McWhorter Chiropractic and Neurological Rehab (CNR))
While everyone experiences some pain from time to time, chronic pain can be an incredibly debilitating condition that affects every aspect of a person’s life. Over-the-counter medications like Aspirin or Ibuprofen can provide temporary relief from chronic pain symptoms, but soon enough the pain will return and get in the way of your daily life. If you’re tired of dealing with chronic pain symptoms every day, it’s time to explore more practical and cutting-edge strategies that help you effectively cope with and address your condition.
These types of treatments, techniques, and strategies take into account the mind-body connection and the importance of personalized care that is far more targeted. In this article, we’ll explore a handful of practical strategies and solutions that can empower individuals to better manage their chronic pain symptoms and experience a better quality of life.
Understanding Chronic Pain and How It Works
Unlike acute pain, chronic pain refers to persistent pain that endures for longer than three months and typically goes beyond the normal healing time of an injury or illness. This condition can be caused by a variety of factors, including underlying medical conditions, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia, or as a result of previous injuries or surgeries. Suffice it to say that chronic pain can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, and can deeply affect their physical abilities, mental health, and overall well-being.
Chronic pain is a complex and multifaceted condition, and while it is mainly a physical ailment, it has many psychological components as well. In order to manage the physical, psychological, social, and lifestyle impacts, one must seek out a comprehensive approach to treating their chronic pain condition.
How Widespread is Chronic Pain?
Believe it or not, chronic pain is one of the most prevalent health issues in the United States as roughly 20% of adults experience chronic pain. The manifestations of chronic pain obviously vary from person to person, but the most commonly diagnosed conditions include chronic low back pain and chronic headaches. While just about anyone can develop chronic pain issues and conditions, evidence suggests that many demographic factors can render certain groups of individuals more susceptible than others, which include:
- Gender: Current research has indicated that females are more likely to experience chronic pain than males.
- Age: While younger individuals can develop chronic pain symptoms and conditions, middle-aged and older adults have a higher risk of developing these issues.
- Income Level: Because individuals within lower socioeconomic statuses often have limited access to healthcare, these individuals may not be able to receive the proper medical care to treat conditions or issues that contribute to chronic pain.
It is also worth noting that mental illnesses and disorders such as depression and anxiety are closely intertwined with chronic pain. Either condition may contribute to the development of the other, and these mental health afflictions often exacerbate the severity and overall impact of chronic pain conditions.
How Chronic Pain Impacts Quality of Life
Let’s assume that you suddenly develop the most common chronic pain condition: lower back pain. How might that condition affect your daily life? As it turns out, in more ways than one:
- Physically: Chronic pain can severely hinder your mobility and reduce your ability to engage in physical activities. For instance, chronic lower back pain can make it nearly impossible for you to pick up heavy objects, bend over, or stand or sit for extended periods of time. As a result, this limited mobility and physical capabilities can cause your functional abilities to become much more limited over time and you risk negatively impacting your cardiovascular health. This chronic pain may also disrupt your sleep patterns, resulting in fatigue and reduced energy levels.
- Emotionally: As we’ve already mentioned, chronic pain takes a toll on your mental health and can cause, worsen, or contribute to symptoms of mental health conditions like depression or anxiety disorders. The constant presence of lower back pain can make you highly irritable at all hours of the day and can cause mood swings depending on the severity of the pain. You may also experience feelings of helplessness or worthlessness due to your pain, and you may experience difficulty staying on task or maintaining focus.
- Financially & Socially: When you can’t think of anything else besides the pain that you’re experiencing, you’ll be unable to do your job to the best of your abilities and you won’t be able to fully engage in everyday activities that you enjoy. If you have to consistently take time off work because of the pain, this can lead to financial strains. Your condition may also impact relationships as you may not have the energy or ability to participate fully in social events or fulfill familial responsibilities. Over time, your chronic pain may also cause you to socially isolate yourself because you may withdraw from social activities and relationships due to the limitations imposed by your pain.
First Step: Diagnose and Assess
In order to accurately diagnose the underlying cause(s) of your chronic pain and develop an appropriate treatment plan, you must seek professional help from a healthcare provider with expertise in pain management. Because the exact causes of chronic pain conditions are unique in every case, you cannot pursue a one-size-fits-all treatment strategy. It’s always better to receive care that is personalized to your specific needs. As such, a comprehensive medical assessment is a must, and it all starts with a physical exam.
Reviewing Your Medical History During a Physical Exam
As noted earlier, chronic pain is a multifactorial condition and often results from complex interconnections of various factors including structural changes within the body, psychological well-being, activity levels, and one’s medical history. A comprehensive evaluation of these factors (among others) is necessary to address the underlying causes and develop an effective treatment plan.
During a physical exam, your practitioner will ask a series of detailed health questions to get a well-rounded understanding of your medical history. They’ll ask about previous surgeries and injuries, prescription medications, familial history, former athletic endeavors, diet and exercise routines, and more.
The rest of the exam will help your practitioner identify physical concerns like musculoskeletal abnormalities or undetected health conditions that may contribute to your pain symptoms. They’ll assess your current physical limitations by asking you to complete a series of simple body movements and those results will help them determine appropriate physical therapy interventions.
Additional Diagnostics: Imaging Tests
Physical exams can usually identify causes or contributing factors of chronic pain issues, but your practitioner may need to look closer and underneath the surface to pinpoint the areas of concern. Imaging tests can accomplish that goal and provide valuable insights into the underlying causes or abnormalities that may contribute to ongoing pain. There are tons of unique imaging tests available today that can be used in the evaluation of chronic pain, which include:
- X-Rays – As you likely already know, x-rays are commonly used to capture images of the skeletal system and can help identify fractures, bone spurs, or other structural concerns.
- CT Scans – Also known as computed tomography scans, these assessments provide detailed cross-sectional images of the body and can help identify things like herniated discs or spinal stenosis.
- MRI Scans – Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) utilizes powerful magnets and radio waves to produce detailed images of soft tissues like muscles, tendons, and organs. These scans can be an incredibly powerful tool when attempting to identify problems with the discs, ligaments, or nerves.
- Ultrasound Imaging – Through the use of specific sound waves, these scans create images of internal structures and can be effective in evaluating conditions that affect joints or ligaments, such as joint inflammation or tendon injuries.
Go Even Further With Psychological Evaluations
Although these evaluations are not always conducted for chronic pain conditions, psychotherapists can uncover valuable insights into the psychological factors that may be contributing to the physical manifestations of chronic pain symptoms. For example, your focus and attention can influence pain perception because research has shown that increased focus on pain sensations can intensify the experience.
In addition, symptoms of anxiety disorders like excessive worrying and obsessive behaviors can further exacerbate pain symptoms. A consultation with a psychotherapist can help identify those internal thought patterns or behaviors that may be contributing to your pain symptoms, and can then recommend appropriate treatments for long-term symptom relief.
How You Can Cope With and Treat Chronic Pain Conditions
In most cases, the best solution for chronic pain conditions is a multi-pronged approach that combines physical, psychological, and social interventions. The right strategy for you will often look different than what works best for others, so make sure you are open and honest with your practitioners when seeking care and that they’re aware of the other treatments that you’re exploring.
In fact, you may even want to connect your healthcare professionals and have them work together to address your chronic pain comprehensively. A multidisciplinary approach allows your practitioners to collaborate and tailor your treatment plans to ensure they’re addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of pain, ensuring a more holistic approach to your pain management.
Various classes of over-the-counter and prescription medications, such as analgesics and antidepressants, have been found to be effective in relieving pain and improving the quality of life for individuals with chronic pain conditions. However, it’s worth noting that these medications can come with unpleasant side effects like nausea, lightheadedness, and many more. You also need to keep in mind that these medicines only provide short-term relief: they do not address the root cause of the problem and should ideally be used as a supplemental treatment for your condition.
Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Exercises
Physical therapy is likely the most effective strategy you can take to improve chronic pain symptoms. These therapies focus on exercises, stretches, and manual techniques that are specifically designed to improve mobility, reduce pain, and enhance overall physical function. It’s the most natural solution to chronic pain conditions and will help you gradually restore mobility over time, but make sure you are prepared to put in the effort to get that reward down the line.
If you can’t make it to physical therapy consistently, it’s a good idea to practice dynamic stretching exercises on a routine basis.
Chiropractors rely on manual spinal adjustments and other non-invasive techniques to address musculoskeletal issues and alleviate pain. They are focused on re-aligning the spine and joints that may be contributing to your pain symptoms, and chiropractic care has been shown to be highly effective at addressing conditions like back pain and/or neck pain.
Sometimes the root cause of your pain needs to be manually worked out by a massage therapist, and they’ve got a wide array of techniques and strategies to help alleviate your pain. For instance, deep tissue massage provides highly targeted pressure on your most affected pain areas and works to break up the knots in your deep muscle tissues that are contributing to your pain. It’s normal to experience some pain during these massage therapy sessions, but make sure you communicate with your therapist throughout the treatment so they don’t unintentionally make the pain worse.
Although talk therapy sessions won’t address the physical pain symptoms that you are experiencing, these sessions can help you understand why you are experiencing these pains and how they are affecting your daily life and relationships. By having a safe space to talk through your emotions and experiences, you can alleviate psychological tension and uncover key insights about your mental health.
It’s also a good idea to explore alternative treatments that are cutting-edge within the healthcare field, like biofeedback therapy. This unique therapeutic intervention is designed to monitor the physiological patterns and behaviors of patients in real time that may be contributing to their pain symptoms, like muscle contractions. Through iterative training and feedback, biofeedback therapy can help you gain better control over your physiological behaviors and that may help reduce your physical pains.
Implement These Pain Management Strategies Today
Managing chronic pain is not a walk in the park: it requires patience, persistence, and a willingness to explore different approaches. It’s up to you to find the treatments that work best for your needs, so take the initiative today to find new treatments and therapies that will help you overcome pain symptoms in the short and long term.
Dr. Jeffrey McWhorter, D.C., M.S.R., A.R.T. is the founder, owner, and operator of McWhorter Chiropractic and Neurological Rehab (CNR). After first receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology from Miami University, Dr. McWhorter went on to receive both his Doctorate of Chiropractic and Masters of Sports Rehabilitation from Logan University in Chesterfield, Missouri. After graduating and moving to the Denver metro area, Dr. McWhorter has quickly become an innovative voice and an inspiring leader as a top Centennial chiropractor.