Counseling & Psychotherapy - Southampton, NJ 08088
Counseling & Psychotherapy - Southampton, NJ 08088
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CHRONIC PAIN

Acute Pain versus Chronic Pain


People experience pain in many different ways. Pain is usually regarded as a necessary protective mechanism that communicates to us that we need to attend to an injury, modify our activity so that we don’t cause further pain, and it alerts us to possible danger or damage.

Most people in the US tend to hold to the traditional “biomedical model” of disease; that is, if someone is ill or in pain there must be an observable organic condition causing it. A related expectation is that once the particular condition has been treated and provided the necessary time for healing, the symptoms of the disease/discomfort will abate.

For many kinds of acute pain these expectations hold true, as the causes are clear and can be dealt with via medical interventions such as surgery (e.g., removing a gallbladder or repairing a torn ligament) or medication (e.g., analgesics for a headache or antibiotics for infection). We also experience acute pain when we stub our toe, burn ourselves on a hot stove, bump into something, or our skin gets cut or scraped. Most people’s pain experiences are acute; that is, even if
pain is severe, it usually goes away quite quickly.

Chronic pain, however, is quite a different matter. Most often the initial cause of pain can be identified, such as when someone sustains a trauma (e.g., injury in the home or workplace, during a sports activity, or on the road), a severe burn, or undergoes a surgical procedure. In chronic pain, pain continues on despite medical interventions and beyond what we would normally expect. Pain is said to be chronic if it lasts for a period of greater than 6 months.

Most people often misinterpret chronic pain as indicating that something is terribly wrong; that is, that doctors have “missed something” and/or that further damage is occurring. Although we do not know exactly what causes most chronic pain (or chronic benign intractable pain), we do know that it is usually not a helpful communication tool our bodies use. That is, it is usually not a “warning system” that alerts us to the possibility of further damage. In fact, most chronic pain appears to serve no purpose at all.

Recent estimations place the number of Americans suffering from chronic pain resulting in partial or total disability at about 50 million. Estimates of physician appointments involving Americans seeking medical assistance for chronic pain may run to nearly 100 million visits annually.

Professionals who treat individuals with chronic pain are often aware of the pervasive and often devastating affect this pain can have on individual lives, including shaking the very foundations of a person’s being. Crises of meaning are frequent for people with chronic pain as they try to make sense of their lives in the face of significant challenges to functional abilities and comfort. Along with physical limitations, chronic pain engenders a host of emotional, cognitive, spiritual, relational, and socioeconomic problems. While these difficulties seem insurmountable, perhaps the greatest challenge underlying these struggles is construing a new or modified worldview that includes the inescapability of pain. Reorienting one’s expectations, self-perception, and future possibilities is often a slow and arduous journey.

Chronic pain is widely believed to represent disease itself. It can be made much worse by environmental and psychological factors, and it can—and often does—cause severe problems for patients.