Living with chronic pain is no easy feat, but what makes it so difficult to diagnose when it’s such a debilitating issue? Find out, here…
Living with chronic pain is no easy ride, and is often extremely debilitating for those affected. Although the pain isn’t directly life-threatening, the quality of life of those afflicted by this condition is something that is always questionable. After all, there often aren’t any treatments, and this can lead to depression in some of the worst cases.
Unfortunately, despite the severity of conditions like this, delayed diagnosis of chronic pain is extremely common. This means that sufferers are left with little control over their lives.
If you want to learn more about this condition, including the causes, symptoms, types, and treatments, you came to the right place. Then, to discover why it’s so difficult to diagnose, keep reading…
What is Chronic Pain?
We all suffer from pain here and there during our lives. Whether it be due to an injury, illness, an unexplained twinge, or even a hangover, we know what it’s like to be bed-ridden. But, what if this pain lasted you months and months?
That’s exactly what happens to those with chronic pain; it’s defined as a pain that persists for 3 to 6 months, or longer. For some, it can be a lifelong condition that they simply have to manage, ranging from mild to severe.
Oftentimes, the pain will be caused by a pre-existing medical condition where one of the symptoms is ongoing pain. However, for some, this pain is unexplained, caused by psychological or neurological issues. This, along with the lack of understanding of the condition, makes it extremely difficult to identify and treat.
Chronic Pain Symptoms
This condition can come and go throughout any given day. There may be days when the pain is completely manageable, and the person does everything they want to do that day. But, when the pain hits, it can leave them unable to leave their bed.
Some of the classic symptoms of chronic pain may include a dull ache, throbbing, shooting, burning, stinging, or squeezing pain somewhere in the body. This soreness and stiffness can be accompanied by tiredness and lack of energy, trouble sleeping, irritability, depression, anxiety, and relationship problems. For some people, it can even lead to suicidal thoughts.
The Causes of Chronic Pain
As we’ve seen, long-lasting pain like this can be caused by pre-existing conditions. Some of the most common causes of this type of pain include:
- Nerve damage
- Bowel problems, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Past injuries
- Past surgeries
- Repetitive strain syndrome
- Lyme disease
- Broken bones
- Stomach or bowel ulcers
- Acid reflux
- Back pain
- Muscle sprains
Common Types of Chronic Pain
As we’ve seen, these direct causes of chronic pain from pre-existing medical conditions are easier to diagnose. That said, pain like this can often materialise without a direct cause, so it’s not always clear where it comes from. Apart from pain caused by the reasons listed above, some of the most common types of pain which might debilitate a person over a long period of time include:
- Fibromyalgia: this is characterised by a widespread pain in the bones and muscles. Usually, it affects the whole body at once.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome: the afflicted person will experience consistent feelings of weariness and tiredness, as well as pain.
- Interstitial cystitis: this is marked by unexplained pain and pressure in the bladder and pelvic area.
- Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ): clicking, popping, or locking of the jaw.
- Vulvodynia: the person might feel unexplained pain in the vulva.
Why is Chronic Pain so Hard to Diagnose?
These types of afflictions are still deemed as a relatively new field of medicine, meaning they’ve only recently started to become a topic of serious exploration. This is what makes them so hard to diagnose, alongside the following reasons:
- Lack of patient knowledge on the subject: because people don’t often know what it is they’re feeling, they may avoid heading to the doctors about it. When they do, they may then be unable to describe their symptoms to the doctor, which can make diagnosis tricky.
- Lack of medical knowledge on the topic: because chronic pain is still something doctors are learning to treat, it’s often brushed aside as something else. In fact, it’s said that this sort of topic is covered very briefly in university lectures, meaning it’s not focused on at all, causing a lack of understanding.
- Unwillingness to understand it: because there are minimal research and understanding surrounding these conditions, doctors are often unwilling to deem them as serious fields of medicine.
- There are so many different types of chronic pain: due to the huge array of reasons and causes, some of them indistinguishable, it makes this an often-undecipherable field of medicine.
- Sometimes, there are no reasons for the pain: many pains, like arthritis, are telling the body it’s damaged, but chronic pain doesn’t always have a reason, so is less easy to pinpoint.
- The stigma behind it: many medical professionals will dismiss these issues as psychological problems or drug-seeking behaviour.
- Lack of funding: the competition for getting funded in this sector is very high, meaning there are so many healthcare professionals who want to research it further but can’t. Without this research, we will probably remain in the dark for decades to come.
- Deemed as a “women’s problem”: women are often the prime patients in these cases. As women have been historically linked with the diagnosis of hysteria, this means doctors sometimes don’t take it seriously enough.
If the doctor does suspect chronic pain, the physical, and sometimes neurological, reasons for this condition mean there are numerous tests that might work. These include physical and neurological exams, blood tests, and even psychological assessments. This is because there are links between those with depression and PTSD and those who emerge with chronic pain.
Chronic Pain Treatment
Once diagnosed, it’s time to treat it, which is definitely easier said than done. Unfortunately, there isn’t always a treatment for this sort of affliction, particularly as it’s so hard to diagnose. So, most of the time, chronic pain management will usually be what the doctor orders, which can be done through a number of ways, including:
- Pain relievers
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
- Opioid drugs
- Medical procedures
- Electrical stimulation to reduce pain via mild shocks
- Nerve blocks, which is an injection which blocks the signals from the brain to the nerves
- Surgeries to correct the improperly healed bones or muscles
- Physical therapy
- Exercises, like walking and yoga
- Art therapy
- Music therapy
- Talking to others
The general advice is to remain as active as possible. The research behind these sorts of afflictions demonstrate that those who carry on with their daily lives as much as possible will be better off for it. Instead, those who put off their usual day-to-day activities can become depressed, anxious, and in more pain. They then find it harder to get going again once they’ve stopped.
Some suggestions for ways to manage the pain in your daily life, apart from these treatments, including planning your day to keep you prepared for what’s to come. It’s also advised that you pace yourself, and don’t do too much on the days where you experience little pain. This can turn around and bite you the next day when your body starts to reel from the previous day’s activity.
Then, distractions are key for when the symptoms start to worsen. This could be continuing with daily activities or learning to relax. Take a hot bubble bath to ease the pain, watch your favourite movie, and enjoy the company of your friends. Whatever keeps your mind away from the pain, that will help you immensely.
You Can Get Through This!
As we’ve seen, chronic pain is not so cut and dry when it comes to the causes, symptoms, and getting a diagnosis. There is still a lot of stigma, and a lack of education, surrounding the issue, meaning we still have a long way to go before it becomes easier to spot and treat. Without this understanding, it seems that this area of medicine will remain in the dark.
Even with a diagnosis, however, treatment is unlikely, and many sufferers have to live with managing the pain for the rest of their lives. With further understanding will come more funding for research, which will really change the way chronic pain is treated. Until then, we hope this advice above will help you to tackle this painful condition.