Persistent Pain

Summary

  • 1 in 5 Australians live with persistent pain
  • It can affect us physically, mentally, emotionally and socially
  • There are many things you can do to deal effectively with persistent pain
  • A team approach, with you at the centre, is the best way to manage your pain

On this page

What is pain?

Pain is our built-in alarm system. It makes us aware that something might be going wrong in our body.   

Pain is essential for our survival as it makes us do something to protect our body. For example, if you put your hand too close to a hot stove, you feel the sensation of heat. If you touch the hot surface, your body feels pain and instinctively pulls away. The pain and your body’s reaction prevents you from hurting yourself any further.

We have danger detectors - called nociceptors - spread throughout most of our body. Pain is usually triggered when the brain receives messages from these nociceptors when they detect something potentially harmful. This message is sent to the brain as a signal that there may be danger. The brain then evaluates this message and decides whether the body needs protecting by producing pain. This is a normal reaction that protects us from any further harm.

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Acute and persistent pain

Pain may be described as acute or persistent.

Acute pain usually begins quickly and lasts for a short period of time. It’s the pain associated with things like a stubbed toe, a broken bone, a burn or having a tooth removed. Acute pain usually goes away after the underlying problem (eg inflammation, injury, infection) has been treated or has healed.  

Persistent pain, sometimes called chronic pain, is pain that lasts for more than three months.

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What causes persistent pain?

Persistent pain is very complex and may be caused by a number of factors. It may occur alongside conditions such as arthritis, diabetes or fibromyalgia. It may occur after an injury or trauma to the body has healed. And in some cases the cause isn’t known. 

Persistent pain is associated with changes to the nervous system (the nerves, spinal cord and brain). Throughout our lives our nervous system changes and adapts to help us learn from and deal with different experiences. This is called neuroplasticity. 

However sometimes this normal process of adapting and changing becomes abnormal. It’s no longer helpful. Persistent pain is an example of this.

This change affects the way the brain understands the information it receives about pain and things such as touch or movement. Everyday activities that shouldn’t cause pain, may cause pain. Pain may be worsened by staying in one position for short periods. The affected area may be tender to light pressure, and at times to very light touch. Often this pain can spread to nearby areas or to the opposite part of the body. This is often referred to as central sensitisation.

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The impact of pain

Although everyone’s experience of living with persistent pain is different, there are many common factors. Pain impacts on us physically, emotionally, psychologically and socially. 

It can affect:

  • our strength and fitness
  • the ability to complete our usual activities at home or work
  • our mental health
  • social connections
  • intimacy
  • sleep
  • concentration
  • and our relationships with family, friends and work mates.  

Fear of pain and further injury can affect the way you normally do things. Concerns about making things worse can affect the way you move and can make you less active. This can lead to you becoming deconditioned or out of shape. It can also increase the chance that pain will continue to persist.  

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Diagnosis

Your doctor will discuss your pain with you and will:

  • ask about your history of pain including - any patterns, potential triggers, things that make your pain worse, things that make it better
  • discuss any other health problems that you may have
  • conduct a physical exam.

Sometimes your doctor may order a scan or some other test to confirm or rule out a condition. It’s important to note that for some conditions, such as back pain, scans are not recommended at all. 

Scans have a high rate of false positive findings. That means that the scan will indicate that something is wrong or abnormal in large numbers of people who have no pain at all. This may lead to a so called ‘abnormality’ on a scan being named as the cause of your pain, but it may not be the cause at all. 

A thorough examination by your doctor will decide whether scans or further tests are appropriate or helpful in developing a treatment plan that’s right for you. 

For more information about questions to ask your doctor before you get any test, treatment or procedure visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.  

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Treatment

A team approach, with you at the centre, is the best way to manage your pain and help you continue to do the things that are important to you. Your healthcare team (eg doctor, physiotherapist, pharmacist), family, friends and support groups all play a role in this team. But at the heart of the team is you. 

There are many options for managing persistent pain—from exercise, to medication, to relaxation techniques. 

Read our information sheet Treating persistent pain for more detailed information.   

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The future 

Many factors influence your recovery and it’s difficult to know how quickly you will respond to treatment or how your condition will progress over time. 

Most acute painful conditions resolve gradually over a few days to a few weeks. A smaller proportion can continue beyond three months and sometimes for much longer. 

Despite the ongoing presence of pain, you can improve what you can do and how you feel. 

When starting any new treatment, discuss with your doctor how long it may take to achieve your specific goals. If you’re not progressing in the time you’ve discussed, it may be of benefit to seek another opinion to see if a different approach is needed.

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Where to get help

  • Your doctor
  • Physiotherapist
  • Exercise physiologist 
  • Psychologist
  • Occupational therapist
  • MOVE muscle, bone & joint health
    National Help Line: 1800 263 265 

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Things to remember

  • 1 in 5 Australians live with persistent pain
  • It can affect us physically, mentally, emotionally and socially
  • There are many things you can do to deal effectively with persistent pain
  • A team approach, with you at the centre, is the best way to manage your pain 

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More information

Need information regarding your condition and commonly prescribed treatments? Or assistance navigating the health, disability and social services systems?  Do you want to speak to someone who has a chronic musculoskeletal condition, and can understand what you are going through? Contact our Help Line on 1800 263 265. 

Interested in finding out about our upcoming webinars and seminars and other events. Click here to learn more

Download a PDF of this information. 

Produced in partnership with Empower Rehab, a Melbourne based pain management clinic.

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We may have a new name but since 1968 we have been the leading provider of supported solutions and trusted knowledge to the one-in-three Australians who live with these conditions.

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