What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is a common condition affecting over one third of adults in the UK.

Chronic pain is pain that continues for longer than 3 months, either as part of another health condition, or despite investigations and treatment.

Phone your GP if:

  • you experience pain for longer than 12 weeks
  • you think you might have chronic pain
  • you’re concerned about worsening pain
  • you already have chronic pain and you’ve developed new symptoms

How does your body feel pain?

The brain and the nerves inside the spine (the spinal nerves) make up the central nervous system.

Nerves carry messages back and forth between our body and our brain all the time.

The brain acts like a control centre. It works out from these messages if it needs to do anything. It’s the brain’s interpretation of these messages that results in the feeling of pain.

Sometimes the brain’s interpretation of these signals isn’t accurate. You might feel pain even when there’s no damage or harm to your body.

Chronic pain can cause changes in your brain and nervous system. These changes can cause the brain to continue to send out pain signals even when there is no harm or damage. The signal pathway to the brain can become over sensitive meaning the signals are amplified.

We usually expect acute pain (for example following an injury) to reduce with the healing process. But sometimes the brain and body continue to send out pain signals long after your body has healed. These signals can be hard to stop, are often intense and at times seem to come for no obvious reason.

Fibromyalgia and complex regional pain syndrome are types of chronic pain conditions.

Watch this video to learn more about chronic pain.

What causes chronic pain?

There isn’t always an obvious cause for chronic pain.

Most people get back to normal after experiencing pain following an injury or operation. But sometimes the pain carries on for longer. Sometimes there’s no identifiable cause for chronic pain.

If you’ve had an injury and pain continues after the expected healing time, this might be chronic pain.

Visit Flippin Pain to understand more about pain.

What is the difference between living with acute pain and chronic pain?

Chronic pain is very different from acute pain.

Acute pain:

  • can usually be easily explained – for example following an injury or illness
  • can usually be reduced by medication
  • causes a short term disruption to your usual routine and activities
  • may cause short term frustration and stress
  • reduces with the healing process – you can expect to return to normal in weeks or months
  • family and friends often provide care and support

Chronic pain:

  • cannot always be explained
  • is not always helped by medicine
  • can cause lasting changes to activities, routines and roles
  • might mean you feel low, exhausted or overwhelmed
  • might cause you to feel hopeless or uncertain about the future
  • is often understood by family and friends who can provide care and support

Managing chronic pain

Chronic pain is a long term (chronic) condition that may not be cured or fixed. For some people the pain may reduce over time. For others, there are changes you can make that can help you live well with chronic pain.

Traditional treatments like pain medication only have a limited benefit for some people with chronic pain.

You might have already found this if you’ve tried different medications and treatments with little benefit.

Talking to a healthcare professional to find the right strategies and techniques for you is the best way to self manage your pain.

Getting the right support can help you to make changes to improve your quality of life.

Read about more ways to manage chronic pain

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Source: NHS Scotland - Opens in new browser window

Last updated:
18 October 2023