Persistent Pain is the New Chronic Pain

A man holding his low back grimaces.
Spinal stenosis increasingly causes back pain in seniors. kozzi2

Persistent Pain is the New Chronic Pain

Persistent pain is the new chronic pain, and once you get used to the new terminology, you may find - as others have - it gives you a more upbeat way to understand and address your condition.  Here’s why:

Persistent Pain Definition

Persistent pain is an updated term that is starting to replace phrases such as “chronic pain,”  "chronic back pain,” “chronic neck pain,” etc.

  The reason for the switch comes from health care professionals and pain associations who, in the last decade or so, have noticed and reported that patients tend to relate to chronic back pain as a condition they need to cure and be done with.  When framed this way, chronic pain is something patients are constantly trying to fix once and for all.

While chronic back pain connotes a likely unshakable condition, persistent pain refers to pain that lasts longer than one would expect or prefer. This more succinct description can open up new possibilities for living well.

Acute Pain vs Persistent Pain – Making the Distinction

When you first injure your neck or back, you’re in the acute (and, a little later, the sub-acute) phase.  At this point, and up until about 3 months, the pain you experience is mostly due to inflammation and tissue damage.  I tend to think of symptoms that occur during the acute and sub-acute phases of an injury as pain that makes sense.

  Something gets hurt, and you feel it.

But after about 3 months, the central nervous system joins in on the experience.  The central nervous system, which consists of your brain and spinal cord, is a complex messaging system.  Some of its many jobs include receiving stimulus (that may later become pain or another sensation such as hot, ticklish, etc.,) relaying messages to other parts of the nervous system, assembling a motor (movement) response to the sensations you feel, and filing the experience of your pain into a context that is unique to you.


Constant Pain - How to Contextualize It?

In essence, the brain makes sense of the stimuli that comes in from the outside world, then lets you know if you’re in pain, and exactly what that pain feels like.  It also plays major roles in formulating related responses such as any accompanying depression, the decision to take a positive attitude about the change in lifestyle due to the injury, and much more.  The brain can contextualize your sensations, including pain, to who you are as a person (in other words, factoring in, for example, the roles you play in work, family and social life, your culture, your personality and your past experiences.) In this way, it coordinates an individual experience of your injury.

The changes in your brain after a back or neck injury tend to stick around longer than does the tissue damage you likely sustained.  This is the key to moving on with your life post-injury.

Persistent Pain and Hope

With "persistent pain,” the reference to the tissue damage is taken out, and the term instead describes the way in which your central nervous system now processes stimuli.

While it's true that for some people, this still means amplified pain or other aberrant sensations, the good news is you have control.

  A number of great techniques and methods have been developed over the past few decades that may help you turn down the volume knob on pain and learn how to clarify your thinking process so you’re not overreacting to what you feel.  

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