Excerpts from the Mayo Clinic:

By Mayo Clinic Press Editors

Most of the time pain is your body’s way of protecting you — reminding you to take your hand off a hot stove or rest a sprained ankle. Pain is critical to survival. It sets limits and teaches us to avoid repeated dangerous mistakes.

But sometimes, the pain protection system starts to misfire. It constantly sends pain signals to the brain that serve no protective function. When this lasts more than a few months, it’s called chronic pain.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 20.4% of U.S. adults have chronic pain. That means approximately 50 million people have chronic pain in the United States alone. Chronic pain affects more Americans than cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined.

Chronic pain is defined as pain experienced on most days, or every day, for three months or more. Around 7.4% of U.S. adults have high-impact chronic pain, which is defined as pain that limits their life or work activities most days for three months or more.

With everyday pain — for example, if you cut yourself or have a stomachache — pain receptors in your skin, muscles and organs send a signal through your nerves to the spinal cord. The signal travels through the spinal cord to your brain. When the pain signals get to the brain, you feel the pain and react accordingly.

Chronic pain usually doesn’t go away, but there are many ways to manage and minimize the pain. For many years, pain medications were the primary way to treat pain.

But Recent Research has Shown that Exercises, Mindfulness Practices and other Complementary Health Approaches can Lead to Pain Relief and Overall Well-being.

While chronic pain is often recognized as a disability in the health care industry, the law is still catching up. Currently, the Social Security Administration (SSA) defines “disability” as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment.  In other words, you need medical evidence (i.e., tests) showing the progression of your disease. Sometimes chronic pain stems from a known cause, like arthritis. With arthritis, persistent joint inflammation triggers repetitive nerve impulses that signal injury. Other examples of known causes of chronic pain include cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS.

But chronic pain can happen without an obvious injury or disease. In these cases, medical tests, such as laboratory tests or imaging, don’t show a problem. But these chronic pain syndromes are just as real as other medical conditions. Just ask the many people who suffer from conditions like fibromyalgia, persistent headaches or irritable bowel syndrome. With everyday pain — for example, if you cut yourself or have a stomachache — pain receptors in your skin, muscles and organs send a signal through your nerves to the spinal cord. The signal travels through the spinal cord to your brain. When the pain signals get to the brain, you feel the pain and react accordingly.

 

The brain, and the pathways that lead to it, can change over time — rerouting messages through new paths in the central nervous system. This is called neuroplasticity, and it usually helps the brain function more efficiently. But as the brain gets faster at processing sensory signals, it can become so sensitive it can no longer accurately detect danger and the messages get distorted. When the central nervous system can’t accurately detect danger, it sometimes sends frequent pain signals to the brain, leading to chronic pain.

Chronic pain can make it hard to participate in your life. It can take control of your mood, job, relationships and productivity. It’s hard to predict who will get chronic pain. Even people if two people had the same history of illness and injury, they could have different outcomes. However, people who are more at risk for chronic pain include: Getting your body moving while you’re in pain might feel counterintuitive, but it’s a good idea. Studies show physical activity reduces chronic pain and slows pain progression. While every person is different, some activities recommended to alleviate chronic pain include:  Activities such as walking, cycling and swimming have been shown to decrease stress, ease depression and anxiety, and manage chronic pain.

Helping you learn to adapt to your home or work environment in new ways. Mindfulness and mind-body techniques. Changing the way, you think about chronic pain can help you learn to live with it more successfully. You may want to try: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of psychotherapy used to treat chronic pain. The goal of CBT is to learn how to manage unhealthy thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to their chronic condition. Biofeedback. Biofeedback is a mind-body technique where sensors measure various activities in your body, such as heart rate or muscle contractions. Biofeedback can provide information that helps people learn to make subtle changes that lead to positive outcomes such as pain relief or increase physical performance. Spirituality. Engaging in spiritual practices can calm anxiety, provide perspective and help bring a sense of purpose and resolve. Yoga. Yoga combines breathing techniques and meditation with poses designed to stretch and strengthen muscles, improve physical fitness, enable relaxation, induce stress relief and lessen pain. Massage therapy. Massage therapy uses systematic rubbing and manipulation of body parts to reduce muscle tension and stress, treat pain, promote relaxation and create a feeling of general well-being. Acupuncture. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese practice that involves inserting thin needles at certain places on the body to alleviate pain and nerve tension. Deep breathing. Deep breathing creates relaxation by slowly and repetitively breathing air in and out using the diaphragm. Music-based interventions. Creating music or simply listening to it as part of therapy can reduce pain and depression symptoms in people with chronic pain.