Pain overview

Here are 10 facts about pain to help you better understand the complex sensation and better discuss it with your doctor if you need to.

  1. Pain can be caused by many conditions and injuries. You can feel pain from head to toe, on the inside and outside of your body, on your skin, and in your bones and joints. Pain that persists can be caused by an acute injury - a broken limb, an ankle sprain - or because of an underlying condition such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, shingles, or Crohn's disease. Pain may also begin after surgery.
  2. Most pain can be relieved or managed. Pain is the body's natural response to injury or damage and actually acts as a useful warning system that alerts us that something is wrong. Acute pain is pain that lasts a short time and should resolve after a normal healing period. But when pain continues past the expected healing time, it is classified as chronic pain. No matter the type of pain, it is reasonable to expect to be comfortable and not in pain. There are many approaches to pain treatment, and many therapies and medications to try. If your doctor is unable to help you, ask to be referred to a pain specialist.
  3. Pain is complex and individual. We all have unique pain thresholds - that is, how much pain we can bear. And we may not all respond in the same way to pain medication or treatment. It is also difficult to precisely measure pain and to define it. Your doctor may ask you to describe your pain, and you can use words like sharp or dull, constant or on-and-off. Or you might be asked to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10 for example. Do your best to be clear so your doctor can accurately advise you. If language is a barrier to clear communication, bring along someone who can translate for you.
  4. Pain medication addiction is not inevitable. For some people, the fear of becoming addicted to pain medication keeps them from trying it and, possibly, finding relief. And opioid (narcotic) pain medication addiction is a grim reality. But if you take pain medication as directed by your doctor, you are not likely to become addicted to opioid pain medications. To learn more, read Opioid pain medications.
  5. Sharing pain medication can be dangerous. Any medication prescribed to you should only be taken by you. And yet, many of the people who abuse pain medications have acquired the medications from friends or family members, not from their doctors. Always keep pain medications stored in a safe place, out of the reach of children and teenagers. Keep track of how much of each medication you have to be sure none has been taken by someone else.
  6. You should not allow pain to persist. You may wait to treat pain, figuring it will get better with time. Or perhaps you occasionally self-treat with over-the-counter medications. But the longer pain is experienced, the harder it can become to control. Untreated pain can also lead to complications like depression, irritability, loss of concentration and mental clarity, and disruptions in sleep and eating habits.
  7. Pain is not a normal part of aging. As you get older, you may notice more minor aches and pains. And chronic pain is common among older adults. However, pain is not a normal or healthy thing that should be accepted or ignored. Track your pain symptoms and share the details with your doctor so you can get advice for managing and treating your pain.
  8. It is important to be honest and open about pain. Always tell your doctor about all of the medications you are taking - including prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as natural products or supplements. Even better, bring along all of your medications when you visit your doctor. Medication interactions can change the way the medications work, reducing effectiveness and possibly causing side effects.
  9. Ice and heat serve different pain-relieving functions. Ice and heat are often recommended as simple, low-cost pain relievers. But the two options work differently and should be used at different times. Ice reduces inflammation and slows down blood flow to the area where it is applied. In this way, ice is helpful in the day or two after an acute injury or if you have swelling. On the other hand, heat boosts blood flow to the area of pain or injury. It is put to best use after swelling has gone down.
  10. Pain can have far-reaching effects on a person's life. Aside from the physical sensations of pain and the toll it can take on a person's energy levels, pain can also impact a person's emotions and moods. If a person has depression, chronic pain can make it worse and is a risk factor for suicide. Also affected are friends and family, who may have to bear the strain of caretaking or accommodating the needs of their loved one in pain.