Chronic pain explained

If you are living with chronic pain, it’s important to know that it’s possible to live a full life while managing it with different treatment options, support and self-care. Chronic pain is pain that lasts for more than three months and can be very challenging to deal with.

This article will explore what chronic pain is, its causes and symptoms, and treatment options you can try. Many young people experience chronic pain, so you’re not alone in experiencing this. 

young person on mattress with arm over their forehead looking exhausted

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is ongoing pain that lasts more than three months. While pain is your body’s normal reaction to injury or illness, chronic pain tends to persist beyond normal healing time. Acute pain develops from an injury or illness and usually doesn’t last very long, whereas chronic pain can be experienced for a much longer period of time. 

With chronic pain, the pain can be there all the time or it might come and go (but it’s usually experienced on most days). The pain can range from mild to severe and can really start to affect your emotional and physical health, and your daily life.

What causes chronic pain?

There’s still a lot that is unknown about what causes chronic pain. In some cases, it has a clear cause, such as when there’s been an injury, surgery, or an ongoing condition such as arthritis or fibromyalgia. But in other cases the cause of chronic pain is harder to identify. 

Typically, when you have an injury, nerve signals transmit information from the injured part of your body to your brain. This is so that your brain knows there’s a problem and understands the signals as pain.

With chronic pain, the nerves that carry the pain signals to the brain, or the brain itself, may operate abnormally. This can result in the nerves being more sensitive or the brain may misread other signals as pain. 

What are the most common chronic pain symptoms?

While symptoms of chronic pain vary from person to person, the main characteristic is ongoing pain beyond the expected healing time for an injury or condition. 

People with chronic pain describe their pain in different ways, such as experiencing aching, burning, stiffness or throbbing. It might also impact your mobility and restrict your movement, which can make it difficult to complete everyday activities. 

Chronic pain can cause mood changes including anxiety and depression. It can also cause fatigue and exhaustion and make daily functioning difficult. If you’re experiencing any or all of these symptoms, getting professional support can make a difference and help you to manage the symptoms effectively.

Do many young people experience chronic pain?

According to a recent review of 42 studies on young people and pain, between 11 per cent and 38 per cent of children and adolescents experience chronic pain. Chronic pain in young people can be the result of long-term health conditions, such as arthritis or musculoskeletal issues, but in other cases the source of the chronic pain might be unclear. This doesn’t make the experience of chronic pain any less valid. While research is still emerging about the number of young people experiencing chronic pain, it can be reassuring to know that you’re not alone and that there are things you can do to manage your experience of chronic pain. 

Talking to people about your chronic pain

Chronic pain can be challenging for those around you to understand, often because it’s not something they can see or have had experience with. Sometimes when you live with chronic pain, you might find people not believing or understanding what it’s like for you. It may even feel like you spend a lot of what energy you do have trying to convince others that your chronic pain is real which can be emotionally exhausting. Even if it’s hard for those around you to understand, it doesn’t mean that your experience of chronic pain is any less valid.  

If you’re struggling to feel understood by your family and friends, consider using spoon theory to help you communicate how chronic pain impacts on your day-to-day life. This theory was developed by Christine Miserandino in the spur-of-the moment to explain to her friend what living with a chronic illness felt like. Each spoon represents a finite amount of energy to spend in a day. While people without a chronic illness might have a lot of spoons, if you live with a chronic illness you have a limited amount of spoons each day. This means that you tend to run out of energy, or “spoons”, more quickly than those who live without chronic illness.

Spoon theory can help you and those around you to have a common language for talking about your experience of chronic pain and your daily capacity.

What chronic pain treatment options should I try? 

There are many different chronic pain treatment options. The first step is to speak to your GP about the pain you’re experiencing. They will be able to help you with treatment or refer you to other medical professionals who can help. Your GP will try to identify and treat the cause of your chronic pain. If this isn’t possible, they will focus on treating, or managing, the pain itself.

Speak to your doctor about chronic pain medication

During your appointment with your GP, you can discuss your symptoms, how long you’ve had the pain, anything that lessens or worsens it, and how the pain affects your daily life. Your doctor should ask you questions about your medical history, lifestyle and your experience of the pain. 

You could also keep a pain journal before seeing your GP, to help you track symptoms, triggers and the patterns of your chronic pain.

Depending on the type and severity of your pain, your doctor may consider suggesting chronic pain medication. The more open and honest you can be with your doctor about the pain you’re experiencing, the better able they will be to help you treat and manage it effectively.

See a chronic pain specialist or a pain clinic

Chronic pain specialists have undergone additional training and specialisation in the area of pain management. If your GP thinks this may be a helpful option for you, they may give you a referral to a chronic pain specialist or a pain clinic.

You could also ask your GP if they have any recommendations for a chronic pain specialist and whether the appointments will be covered by Medicare or health insurance. Being informed about your options can help you to navigate treating your pain more confidently.

Talk to a psychologist who specialises in chronic pain

Because chronic pain can have an impact on your mental and emotional health, not just your physical health, talking to a psychologist is usually an important part of chronic pain management. Psychologists who specialise in chronic pain will be very knowledgeable about the psychological and emotional aspects of living with chronic pain. They can offer support and strategies for managing the pain and improving your overall well being.

If you’re experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of chronic pain, you can ask your GP if a mental health care plan or a chronic disease management plan is the best option for you. They may also have recommendations for psychologists who specialise in chronic pain or online treatment options such as those offered by MindSpot or ThisWayUp.

Will I have to live with chronic pain forever? 

The treatment, duration and management of chronic pain varies depending on its underlying cause, the effectiveness of treatment and the person’s individual circumstances. While it’s possible that chronic pain can resolve completely, this might not always be the case. Having said that, there are many effective strategies for long-term management of chronic pain symptoms. 

Living with chronic pain can be really challenging, but it doesn’t have to define your life. By exploring different treatment options, seeking support, and practising self-care, you can have a fulfilling life despite living with chronic pain.

  • Join the ReachOut Online Community and check out the ‘Disability and Chronic Illness’ space.

  • Learn some tips on how to build your coping skills for when life gets tough.


Serious and chronic illness