How chronic pain affects the body

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Chronic pain often results from changes in the sensitivity of your nerves, spinal cord and brain. In some people, the nervous system becomes “hypersensitive” to a pain message after an injury. As a result, the brain continues to interpret the firing of the nerves as a feeling of pain, when in fact the injury has already healed and there is no danger. In effect, the brain is receiving a false alarm.

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Chronic pain can affect many aspects of your life. For instance, it can bring down your mood and interfere with your sleep and other activities such as attending school or work, playing sports, enjoying hobbies and seeing friends. We don’t understand exactly why some people experience chronic pain and can’t predict who will develop it after an injury.

Understanding some key terms about chronic pain

There are a number of ways to classify, or categorize, pain. This can sometimes be confusing! Here are some different terms that will help.

1. Duration

Pain can be defined in terms of its duration. Acute pain is brief, but chronic pain lasts a long time.

2. Location

Pain can also be defined by its location in the body, such as abdominal pain, or its link with an underlying disease, such as arthritic pain.

3. Frequency

Chronic pain can be described as persistent or recurrent.

  • Persistent chronic pain is pain that lasts for longer than the normal time needed for healing, usually between six weeks and three months.
  • Recurrent pain is pain that occurs at least three times within three months.

4. Mechanism

Pain can also be defined by its underlying mechanism or cause. Two main mechanisms cause pain.

  • Nociceptive pain occurs when pain messages are sent to your nerves and brain by receptors in your tissues (such as an organ or your hands or feet).
  • Neuropathic pain occurs when pain messages are generated by nerves in your body or the receiving centre in the brain.

Many people with chronic pain have a combination of both nociceptive and neuropathic pain – this is called mixed pain.

Last updated: May 2nd 2016