Why is back pain or a knee injury annoying to one person and sheer agony to another? Turns out, an individual's tolerance to pain is as unique as the person, and is shaped by some surprising biological factors, as well as some psychological factors that we can actually try to control.
Carla Ulbrich, 45, is willing to use medication to help control her chronic pain. But she sees it as just one piece of her overall plan. For the past 20 years, lupus and fibromyalgia have caused pain to smolder and flare around her body.
Pain medication offered varying degrees of relief, but also often led to side effects. She credits a mix of additional practices -- acupuncture, massage, heat, and changing her diet -- for much of her current success in controlling the pain.
"I'd say medication saved my life, but throwing medication at something never really gets to the root of it," says Ulbrich, who lives in Somerset, N.J.
No Quick Fixes for Chronic Pain
A broken leg, and the acute pain it causes, can often be treated relatively quickly, says Perry Fine, MD, a pain specialist at the University of Utah. But chronic pain is more akin to bigger problems like diabetes or advanced cancer, which can't be so quickly or easily "fixed."
The goal when treating chronic pain isn't necessarily to become pain-free. Instead, the target is often a good quality of life while managing pain at a tolerable level.
"What's important is for people in chronic pain to communicate ... with their doctor, and let them know what their pain level is that keeps them from doing certain things," Fine says. "For example, 'My pain is keeping me from sleeping, going to work, and getting around and walking.' Then talk to the practitioner about establishing specific, measurable goals such as being able to vacuum, go to work, have sex, and get to sleep."