Imagine gritting it out with sharp, throbbing pain from a migraine or back injury for just a few hours. Or doing your best to concentrate at work through the ache of an abscessed tooth.
Now, imagine coping with similar pain for years — and though it goes away at times, it’s never for long. Sadly, that’s the reality for millions of Americans. Chronic pain can take over a person’s life, but it doesn’t have to. Still, there’s no magic pill. Learning to manage pain is a process you go through and a decision you make.
Pain’s Wide Reach
Pain is invisible — others can’t see it or touch it. There isn’t a blood test that measures pain, or an X-ray that confirms its existence. It can be hard for people to get their pain taken seriously. But pain is a big problem. About 100 million U.S. adults are affected by chronic pain, and it costs up to $635 billion yearly in medical care and lost productivity, according to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report.
Backaches and headaches (especially migraines) are the most common pain culprits, but there are many others. Arthritis, injuries, pain from cancer or heart disease, genetic conditions like sickle cell disease, and surgical complications like severed nerves — any of these can result in pain that becomes a continual presence.
[Read: How to Describe Medical Symptoms to Your Doctor.]
Here to Stay
For Penney Cowan, founder of the American Chronic Pain Association, the journey with pain began nearly 40 years ago. Fibromyalgia was the reason, but it took six years for doctors to properly diagnose it. Even today, the cause of fibromylagia is still unclear, but common symptoms include widespread muscle pain, fatigue and sleep problems. In Cowan’s case, pain affected nearly her entire body and worsened to the point that her quality of life was “down the tubes,” she says. “I couldn’t even hold a cup of coffee; it was too painful.” It became so bad, she says, that it consumed every waking thought and moment.
When does pain cross the line from temporary setback to lifelong condition? “If the pain’s been around for five years, the chances of having zero pain are probably pretty small,” says Robin Hamill-Ruth, an anesthesiologist, pain management specialist and president of the American Board of Pain Medicine. At that point, she says, pain management becomes the goal: “How do you get the pain to a level that it doesn’t control [patients’] lives — they control it?”
[Read: Yoga with Fibromyalgia: Carol Royal’s Story.]
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