Pain, pain, go away. When chronic pain starts to disrupt your quality of life, it’s time to call the doctor.

Almost everyone experiences pain at some point in their life. When should you ride it out, and when should you call your primary care doctor or see a specialist? Because pain is a complex condition with many possible causes and subjective data, the answer is not always immediately clear.

Common sense, and most physicians, will tell you that once the pain starts hanging on for weeks or months at a time, and over-the-counter medications and standard treatments are no longer effective, then it’s time to seek medical help.

Pain by the Numbers

According to the National Institutes of Health, pain is the most common reason people see a doctor. Chronic pain is the leading cause of disability in the United States. In fact, more Americans are reported to have chronic pain than have diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined.

Name Your Pain

Where does it hurt? How much does it hurt? How long has it hurt? Before you can treat pain, you have to identify its cause. Some pain is a medical condition of its own. Some is the result of a medical condition, injury or surgery. You may need to consult a doctor to determine the cause of your pain.

Acute Pain. Can come on suddenly and is temporary. You sprain your ankle. You pass a kidney stone. You have surgery. Acute pain can be sharp and hard to ignore.

Chronic Pain. Can last for weeks, months, or even years. You have a nagging, aching back. You get frequent headaches. You have arthritis. Chronic pain is much more difficult to treat than acute pain, and its cause is often unknown.

Common Types of Pain. Low back pain, headache or migraine, and neck pain are the most frequently reported. 

5 Ways to Tame Your Pain

When you experience acute or temporary pain, your first line of defense is often to reach for an over-the-counter pain medication such as acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) or ibuprofen (i.e., Advil or Motrin). Chronic pain requires a long-term strategy.

1. See your primary care doctor. He or she can help identify the cause of your pain and investigate treatment options.

2. Consult a pain management specialist. If your pain continues or gets worse, your primary care doctor may refer you to a pain specialist.

3. Manage your medicine. You may need a variety of medicine to manage the complexities of chronic pain. For severe pain, your doctor may prescribe a narcotic or other prescription drugs that could have any number of potential side effects, including physical and psychological addiction. This is why it is so important that you follow your physician’s instructions carefully and keep all of your health care providers abreast of other medicines and supplements you are taking.

4. Investigate healing therapies. When you are under stress, you are less able to control your response to pain. Acupuncture, biofeedback, yoga, massage, and music therapy are all known to calm your mind and reduce your stress and anxiety.

5. Adopt a healthy lifestyle. The Academy of Integrative Pain Management defines a healthy lifestyle as integral to restoring wellness in patients. The same lifestyle behaviors that reduce your risk of disease can help you to manage chronic pain. Eat a plant-based diet, limit or eliminate alcohol, stay active and maintain a healthy weight.

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