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Chronic Pain: Why You Shouldn't Ignore It

Pain is the No. 1 cause of disability in the United States, but relief is often at hand.
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WebMD Magazine - Feature

Remember your gruff high school coach's advice for treating an injury? "Just walk it off."

Turns out your coach should have been sidelined for making a bad call, because while this strategy might have worked for the odd skinned knee, it's downright dangerous for serious pain. Still, a staggering one in 10 Americans reports that he or she has had regular pain for more than a year. Pain is the No. 1 cause of disability in the United States. So why can't we find relief?

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Experts say that some people get the wrong diagnosis from their doctor. Others never seek help because they just get used to the pain. Or they assume that pain is inevitable, like gray hairs, and don't bother fighting it.

But you should never settle for chronic pain. You shouldn't have to.

"Pain is the body's red alert," says Anne Louise Oaklander, MD, PhD, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. "You must always listen to it."

Although pain treatment was once more of an afterthought -- as doctors focused only on treating the underlying cause -- pain management is becoming an important part of medical care. In other words, pain isn't just a symptom of something else: It's a condition that needs to be treated.

 

What Is Chronic Pain?

Any pain that goes on for more than three to six months is considered chronic. According to a 2006 report by the CDC, the most common types of pain are:

  • Migraines and other headaches
  • Low back pain
  • Joint pain and stiffness from arthritis and other conditions

Another common cause of chronic pain is nerve pain, the result of conditions such as diabetes and shingles.

The effects of chronic pain vary from minor to catastrophic. Chronic pain is much more than just the sensation of pain. It seeps into the rest of your life. It can keep you awake at night, leaving you exhausted. It disrupts your family life. It can affect your work -- or even prevent you from working at all.

Ideally, pain is meant to be felt briefly. That stinging, aching, or throbbing sends helpful messages, like "Drop that red-hot pot handle" or "Remove your hand from the hornets' nest." After a while, it goes away.

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