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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 5, No. 5 - September/October 2013

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Chronic Pain

By Dr. Shen Satkunarasa

Although it's uncomfortable, pain can be very useful. This is because it acts as a warning system that alerts you to things that may cause you harm. For example, touching a very hot object causes pain. Your body then reacts almost immediately by pulling your hand away, thus protecting your body from any further damage.

However, pain is not always so helpful.

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than it should. Anyone, young or old, can suffer from chronic pain, although it is more common in older people. In Australia, one in five people, including children and adolescents, suffer from chronic pain and one in three of those over 65 years live with it.

What happens in chronic pain?

Your skin contains millions and millions of nerves, which are like telephone wires carrying messages from one part of your body to another.

When you hurt yourself, these nerves send a message to your brain, which then processes the message. This is the point at which you 'feel' the pain. Next, your brain instructs your body to take action. The pain messages stop once the injury stops.

In chronic pain, however, the warning system becomes extra sensitive. As a result, pain messages are continuously sent to the brain, even when there is no injury to trigger it.

This means that in chronic pain the pain never goes away completely, or goes away for a little while but then comes back.

How does it affect you?

Chronic pain can be felt in almost any part of your body. It can be continuous or intermittent.

Chronic pain can have a very big impact on your life. It can stop you having a good night's sleep, so you feel tired all the time. It can also make it more difficult to do the things you normally like to do, which makes you feel sad or frustrated.

How can the doctor tell it is chronic pain?

First of all, the doctors ask some questions about the pain, about where it hurts and what makes it better or worse. They may then do some tests, like scans and blood tests, to try and work out what is going on.

The tests do not always show up what is causing the pain, but the doctors can still treat it.

What treatments are there for chronic pain?

One way of treating chronic pain is to use medicines. The type of medicine depends on the individual and on the type of pain. Most medicines come as pills, although some are given as injections.

Sometimes an operation might be needed. For example, if the pain is due to arthritis in a joint, an operation to replace the painful joint with a new one may help.

Apart from doctors and nurses, there are many other specialists who can help with pain management, such as psychologists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists. They help find ways of coping with the pain.

There are also things you can do yourself, such as exercise and learning relaxation techniques. Joining a support group and talking through the impact pain has on your life may help too. It is important to remember that pain is not something you can see, so it can be very difficult for others to understand what someone with chronic pain is going through.

About Dr. Shen Satkunarasa (MBBS)

Dr. Shen Satkunarasa is a medical writer at Medikidz, an organisation that provides children with informative, accessible and fun comics to help them understand health and illness.

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