Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(5):1345-1346

See related article on chronic pain.

What is chronic pain and what causes it?

Pain is what you feel when you've been hurt or have a disease or illness. There are two types of pain: acute and chronic. Acute pain doesn't last long and usually goes away as your body heals. Chronic pain lasts a long time (at least 6 months) after your body has healed. Chronic pain can occur without a known cause. Along with the discomfort, chronic pain can cause low self-esteem, depression and anger, and it can interfere with your daily activities.

How should I treat chronic pain?

Treatment of chronic pain usually involves medicines and therapy. Medicines include pain relievers, antidepressants and anticonvulsants. Different types of pain get better with different types of medicines. Usually you use long-acting medicines for constant pain, and short-acting medicines are used for pain that comes and goes. The medicines that will help you the most depend on what type of pain you have and how long it lasts.

Several types of therapy can help ease your pain. Physical therapy (such as stretching and strengthening activities) and exercise (such as walking, swimming or biking) can help reduce the pain. Occupational therapy teaches you how to pace yourself and how to do ordinary tasks differently so you won't hurt yourself. Not doing physical activity or trying to do too much can hurt chronic pain patients. Behavioral therapy can reduce your pain through exercises that help you relax (such as meditation and yoga). It can also help get rid of stress. Doing these exercises helps your muscles relax and lessen the pain.

Lifestyle changes are also an important part of therapy. Getting regular sleep at night and not taking daytime naps should help. Stopping smoking helps too because the nicotine in cigarettes can make some medicines less effective. Smokers also have more pain than nonsmokers.

Most pain treatments will not take away all of your pain. Instead, treatment should reduce how much pain you have and how often it occurs. Talk to your doctor to learn how to best control your pain.

How do I talk to my doctor about pain?

Telling your doctor about your pain will help him or her find the best treatment. Tell your doctor where, how bad and how often your pain occurs. Also talk about what makes the pain better or worse. Your doctor may also review other health problems (such as arthritis, breathing problems and heart conditions) you may have, as these may keep you from doing some types of therapy. Your doctor may also ask if you have had any problems with sleep, mood or anxiety.

Where can I get more information?

  • American Chronic Pain Association, Inc.

    P.O. Box 850

    Rocklin, CA 95677

    Telephone: 916-632-0922

    Internet address: http://www.theacpa.org

  • American Pain Society

  • 4700 W. Lake Avenue

  • Glenview, IL 60025

  • Telephone: 847-375-4715

  • Internet address: http://www.ampainsoc.org

  • American Council for Headache Education

  • 19 Mantua Road

  • Mount Royal, NJ 08061

  • Telephone: 800-255-ACHE (2243) or 856-423-0258

  • Internet address: http://www.achenet.org

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