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
Hearing your doctor utter the words, "We’re going to have to operate," can
send a shiver down your spine. Immediately, questions about the seriousness of
your condition, the procedure itself, and the likelihood that it will cure what
ails you flood the mind. Then, there is the prospect of post-surgery pain. How
badly is this going to hurt?
The bad news is that some pain is an inevitable companion to most types of
surgery. The good news is that there are many highly effective medications to
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
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
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
But some pain doesn't. All it takes is an injury that doesn't heal
correctly, or joint deterioration, or nerve damage, and the pain-signaling
system breaks down. Your pain isn't giving you a helpful message anymore -- it
If you have chronic pain, your gut instincts may work against you. If your
knee hurts when you walk, you naturally want to walk less. But if you walk
less, your muscles can weaken. The fatigue that comes with pain can immobilize
you, causing weight gain and worsening physical health. Sometimes, exercising
through chronic pain -- under a doctor's supervision, of course -- is the only
way to decrease it. So we'll chalk one up to your high school coach. In this
particular instance, walking it off might be just what the doctor ordered.