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Chronic pain

On this page: What is chronic pain? | What is the effect of chronic pain? | How can a Psychologist help?

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is pain that has persisted for more than three months following an injury. While acute pain is a sign of injury and indicates to the person that they should stop doing what they are doing to prevent injury, chronic pain is not necessarily sending the same message, and therefore needs to be dealt with in a different way to acute pain.

What is the effect of chronic pain?

Chronic pain can be debilitating. In addition to the difficulty caused by the ongoing experience of pain, it can also affect a person in many other ways. Chronic injury and pain can lead to job loss, financial changes, changes in relationships with family and friends, reduced activity, medication use and the side effects associated with this. As a result of these changes and as a result of constantly dealing with pain, depression and anxiety are possible.

Depression is sometimes the way we respond when we feel overwhelmed. Depression compounds the problems associated with chronic pain by lowering our mood, reducing the enjoyment we feel from usually pleasurable activities, reducing our energy and motivation levels, interfering with our sleep and appetite. There are many other symptoms of depression – see our Depression factsheet for further information. The negative thinking associated with depression can also reduce a person’s ability to cope with chronic pain.

Anxiety is associated with chronic pain and the changes in lifestyle as we worry about how we will cope with the changes. Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling which ranges from a mild level where a person may only feel an increase in muscle tension, through to more obvious symptoms such as increases in heart beat and blood pressure, digestive upset and heightened feeling of fear and worry. The increase in muscle tension associated with anxiety can increase the amount of pain a person experiences. Depression exacerbates anxiety as depression saps us of the resources, such as energy and motivation, needed to deal with lifestyle changes associated with injury and chronic pain.

How can a Psychologist help?

Psychologists have an important role to play with people experiencing chronic pain. Their role is to help a person in their thinking with regard to the pain, which is often very negative and which exacerbates the experience of pain. Also, their role is to work with any depression or anxiety as a result of the chronic pain, and with the lifestyle changes that have occurred as a result of the injury and pain. While there is no quick or magic solution to dealing with chronic pain, or any psychological difficulty for that matter, speaking with a psychologist can help a person understand chronic pain, it’s role, and how to improve their ability to cope with the pain and reduce the impact of the pain on their lifestyle.

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