In 2006, Swedish researchers discovered a large family in the northernmost region of the country sharing a particularly strange and dangerous mutation: a congenital insensitivity to pain. Yet far from being a superpower, the ability to live without a perception or concept of pain is often lethal.
Pain is critical to the human experience. Like sight, sound, and smell, it’s a sense – one that helps us interact with the world. It helps us avoid falls, burns, and dangerous animals. In informs our instincts, feeds our fears, and triggers bursts of panicked energy. It helps us grow. But pain is not always our friend.
As we’ve come to learn more about pain, our methods of treating it have drastically changed and improved over time. There was a time when it was believed that pain and healing were intrinsically linked – to the point that analgesia would slow the healing process.
But while medicine has evolved over the centuries, the human experience with pain has never changed. Pain is pain, as it always has been, and it is a constant companion for many. How we understand pain is informed by our upbringing and our experiences, and how pain has been explained to us as young children.
We’re told not to cry, to walk it off, or to suffer privately. And the science proves that culture isn’t just influenced by pain, but actively affects how we perceive it. Chronic pain, however, is an entirely different beast.
It has no meaning. It is cruel and relentless. It doesn’t teach or inform. There is no purpose to it. Treating and managing chronic pain is a top priority, as it is a condition that senselessly affects roughly a fifth of the US adult population, severely affecting 8% of adults.
Yet while millions of Americans suffer daily with conditions of chronic pain, many misunderstand what it is, or how to deal with it. We will address some of the biggest myths around managing chronic pain, to help shed some light on it.
Chronic Pain Is Just a Part of Aging
The human body can only live for so long. Our natural lifespan is determined primarily by our genes and the ability to replicate our cells repeatedly. As time passes, the replication becomes imperfect, until our body ceases to function.
Because we essentially deteriorate over age, it becomes implied that pain is just a normal part of aging. Statistics show that roughly 30% of older adults report chronic pain, and 55% of older adults in long-term care facilities say their pain impedes daily function.
Back pain is the most common kind of chronic pain experienced by older adults, and it occurs more often in advancing age due to loss of bone and muscle strength, and loss of flexibility. While you do become more susceptible to injury, chronic pain should never be a given. Despite what these numbers imply, chronic pain is not a necessary part of aging.
Not all older adults struggle with chronic pain, and many protective factors can not only help stave off muscular atrophy and bone density loss but help reduce existing pains. From massage therapy to medication and non-invasive interventions, chronic pain can be eliminated with the right approach, and never needs to be a normal part of getting older.
Bed Rest Is Always Better Than Exercise
When it comes to managing chronic pain, the last thing you’d wish to do was further aggravate your body by going for a run or lifting weight. However, mild exercise and a sensible training plan with modest progressive overload will not only help you overcome the pain temporarily, but it can help reduce the severity of the pain in the long-term.
When pain makes most types of exercise truly impossible, it’s important to consult a professional for movements and techniques to help reduce pain levels. Gentle stretching, isometric exercises, and other similar techniques under the guidance of a physiotherapist can dramatically improve many conditions with chronic pain.
There is a limit to what exercise can do. Too much can quickly overwhelm the body and cause even more pain, due to poor recovery. Depending on your condition, your limits will differ. But by pacing yourself and taking it slowly, one step at a time, you can reap the benefits of exercise without aggravating your condition.
Alternative Treatments for Managing Chronic Pain Is Bogus
We have come a long way from solely prescribing opium derivatives and hoping for the best. Today, pain is understood to be a condition best addressed through a multimodal approach – one that considers both the physical and mental factors that affect chronic pain, and aims to alleviate pain through a variety of treatments, from medication to strength and flexibility training, massages, heat therapy, animal therapy, talk therapy, and even acupuncture.
As we learn more about the nociceptive relationship between our mind and our body, we continue to identify better ways of addressing pain and discovering techniques for blocking it out or safely reducing it. However, some treatments are treated with less respect than others. We learn that there’s a difference between ‘real’ medicine and pseudoscience, and while that is true, not all cases of chronic pain must be addressed with surgeries, syringes, or pills.
Even treatments that are not yet fully understood or largely expected to work through placebo, like acupuncture, have shown to be successful. There are many ways to address pain, and a valid way of treating a form of chronic pain would be to utilize a number of them concurrently.
Doctors Don’t Care About Treating, Managing Chronic Pain
The other side of the coin is the belief that Western medicine is largely built to line the pockets of physicians or their pharmaceutical overlords (and there are many reasons for this loss in trust), and the real answer to treating life-long conditions that cause chronic pain lies in folk medicine, herbal remedies, or a product equivalent to modern snake oil.
As hopeful as it might sound that the secret cure to all your back pain is just one click away, it’s rarely as simple as all that. It isn’t that doctors don’t want to help – it’s that the best way to help is to treat a patient properly, and cautiously, and that this might not always be the simplest way.
There are other myths about managing chronic pain, including the myth that opioids always cause addiction – or that if you’re prescribed an opioid for legitimate pain, you cannot get addicted. It’s a very valuable and powerful kind of medication, but it has its risks, and they can be life-threatening.
The path to treating and managing chronic pain is neither simple nor easy, but we know more than we have ever known before and continue to find ways to help patients deal with debilitating conditions, improving their quality of life one step at a time.