The long term effects of untreated chronic pain

I came across this pretty decent article on chronic pain – interesting how chronic pain eventually changes the brain structure – no wonder most of us also suffer from insomnia, anxiety, depression, and other issues! Being in pain 24/7 is NOT fun. When I’m in a lot of pain, my mom and Bart can see it in my face, and especially my behaviour – it’s as if my entire brain and body shut down and I can’t function. Luckily for me that right now I’m in school, and not working full time, and am able to give my body the rest and support it needs. Hopefully that will continue once I do go back to work 🙂

Being in pain is quite uncomfortable for most people. Even minor pain, such as a stubbed toe or a paper cut, is unpleasant but that pain fades relatively quickly. Imagine being in pain that never fades, or that fades only to come back a few hours later. What would that do to a person? This is what people with chronic pain have to deal with every day.

Chronic pain, a diagnosis including arthritis, back pain, and recurring migraines, can have a profound effect on a person’s day to day life when it goes untreated. People dealing with ongoing or long-term pain can become irritable, short-tempered, and impatient, and with good reason. Constant pain raises the focus threshold for basic functioning, which leaves the pained person with a greatly reduced ability to find solutions or workarounds to even relatively mundane problems. Something like a traffic jam, which most people would be mildly annoyed by but ultimately take in stride, could seriously throw off the rhythm of someone who is putting forth so much effort just to get through the day.

Upper Back pain

After a while, pain wears a person down, draining their energy and sapping their motivation. They sometimes attempt to limit social contact in an effort to reduce stress and to decrease the amount of energy they have to spend reacting to their environment. Eventually, many people with chronic pain develop depression-like symptoms: lack of interpersonal interaction, difficulty concentrating on simple tasks, and the desire to simplify their life as much as possible, which often manifests as seeking isolation and quiet. Sleeping often makes the pain less intrusive, and that combined with the exhaustion that pain induces means that it isn’t uncommon for a person to start sleeping upwards of ten hours a day.

Some recent studies have also shown that chronic pain can actually affect a person’s brain chemistry and even change the wiring of the nervous system. Cells in the spinal cord and brain of a person with chronic pain, especially in the section of the brain that processes emotion, deteriorate more quickly than normal, exacerbating many of the depression-like symptoms. It becomes physically more difficult for people with chronic pain to process multiple things at once and react to ongoing changes in their environment, limiting their ability to focus even more. Sleep also becomes difficult, because the section of the brain that regulates sense-data also regulates the sleep cycle. This regulator becomes smaller from reacting to the pain, making falling asleep more difficult for people with chronic pain.

Hand Pain

In addition to making some symptoms more profound, the change in brain chemistry can, create new ones, as well. The most pronounced of these are anxiety and depression. After enough recurring pain, the brain rewires itself to anticipate future bouts, which makes patients constantly wary and causes significant anxiety related to pain. Because chronic pain often mimics depression by altering how a person’s brain reacts to discomfort and pain, chronic pain often biologically creates a feeling of hopelessness and makes it more difficult to process future pain in a healthy way. In fact, roughly one third of patients with chronic pain develop depression at some point during their lifetime.

Untreated pain creates a downward spiral of chronic pain symptoms, so it is always best to treat pain early and avoid chronic pain. This is why multidisciplinary pain clinics should be involved for accurate diagnosis and effective intervention early in the course of a painful illness – as soon as the primary care provider runs out of options that they can do themselves such as physical therapy or medications. However, even if the effects of chronic pain have set in, effective interdisciplinary treatment may significantly reduce the consequences of pain in their lives. There are any number of common treatments, which include exercise, physical therapy, a balanced diet, and prescription pain medication. Ultimately, effective treatment depends on the individual person and the specific source of the pain. One thing is very clear, however: the earlier a person begins effective treatment, the less the pain will affect their day-to-day life.

Enjoy your (hopefully pain-free) weekend everyone!

xoxo Lex

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14 thoughts on “The long term effects of untreated chronic pain

  1. Sounds like a great article that you found! Our bodies and minds are inextricably linked, so in treating individuals who live with chronic pain, we need to work on healing both. Like you said, our minds get rewired with chronic pain, so some work needs to be done to rewire it to healthier and hopefully pain-free pathways so that your body can cooperate with you and do the things it needs to get done everyday. Have you looked into working with an occupational therapist?

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    • 100% agree with you. I am currently in school studying to become a holistic nutritionist, and learning holistic ways to change my brain structure. I have also seen a psychologist in the past for 2 years to change my thought patterns, and found that helped. I have now been off the antidepressants for over a week and don’t feel any type of depression and my anxiety is not very high, so, this tells me I probably did not need the antidepressants, and if I did, only for a short period to get me through a really bad rough patch, but not for 3 years! I have not seen an occupational therapist, but it may be something I should look into once I have the time after school. Right now I see my naturopath and pain specialist, which takes up a lot of my time outside of school!

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  2. Pingback: The long term effects of untreated chronic pain | Damon Lifestyle Therapy

  3. This is the most helpful post I’ve read in awhile. My husband suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis and it’s beating our marriage into the ground because every single symptom associated to chronic pain is being manifested. I had never really thought of it in these terms. I did realize that it would cause depression but irritability around others and needing more sleep is somewhat surprising. I guess I was of the mind set that socialization would be a distraction. Excellent article.

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  4. Reblogged this to kicking strokes ass in words
    And stated interesting article ,
    Thank you for this as a sufferer it’s interesting reading ,

    Like

  5. Pingback: The Long-Term Effects of Untreated Chronic Pain – Breaking the Chains of Chronic Pain

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