Chronic pain is a serious condition that’s estimated to affect roughly one out of three Americans. For people suffering from chronic pain, every day they wake up and deal with some sort of nagging or extreme pain, caused by previous injury, treatment response, or perhaps years of abuse to the body.
What’s important to note, however, is that pain is often considered a symptom of a disease or condition. This is true most of the time, but there are certain situations where chronic pain is the disease itself.
In about 10% of cases, extreme chronic pain can continue for months or even years following treatment for what might seem like a trivial injury, like spraining your wrist, for example. For most people, this is a small event. The wrist is treated, it heals, and the pain subsides.
But for people with allodynia, it isn’t so simple. The healing process triggers a response where the pain receptors in the affected area become prone to excruciating pain following recovery. Imagine the feeling of somebody stroking your arm with a feather. A person with allodynia would feel like they’re being burned with a blowtorch.
Your body is a complex system and it’s not as simple, as say, the wiring of your house. If you stub a toe, your nerves don’t just send a response to your brain causing you to feel pain, the same way flicking a switch will turn your lights on. Instead, when you bang your toe, the nerves fire off neurotransmitters in every direction, hitting cells in your spinal chord. Glial cells are essential in the modulation, amplification, and distortion of pain, and in people with allodynia, they morph and distort the sensory experience. The glial cells release more neurotransmitters but it’s not a quick, one-way relationship.
Something called a “positive feedback loop” occurs, creating a constant cycle of neurotransmissions that cause the chronic, excruciating pain. Any stimulation to the affected area sets the wheels in motion, even the touch of a feather.
Drugs are not effective in treating this type of pain, but doctors have found that physical, occupational, and psychotherapy work well. The physical therapy is very painful and intense, but the struggle appears to be worthwhile.
A very important component in recovery is psychotherapy. The brain is retrained to respond to stimulation differently, the way it should, rather than distorting it. The psychotherapy is also important because bouts of depression typically accompany chronic pain patients.
Chronic pain isn’t always a symptom and traditional methods of healing aren’t necessarily the answer. If you experience extreme pain, talk to your doctor about the various forms of treatment. After all, the pain might not be a symptom of a condition, but the condition itself.
Donaldson-James, S., “Chronc Pain: About 1/3 of Americans Live with it, According to IOM Report,” ABC News web site, June 29, 2011; http://abcnews.go.com/US/chronic-pain-americans-live-iom-report/story?id=13950802, last accessed February 19, 2014.
Krane, E., “The Mystery of Chronic Pain,” TED web site, May 2011; http://www.ted.com/talks/elliot_krane_the_mystery_of_chronic_pain.html, last accessed February 19, 2014.