Common Causes of Chronic Pain

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on May 30, 2022

Man suffering from chronic pain

What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is defined as pain that persists greater than three months. Chronic pain is not just the typical aches and pains usually experienced by the general population; it is a clinical condition that has significant physical, emotional, and social effects.[1]

Pain is an important response as it acts like an alert system for the body, warning it about actual or potential damage or injury. Chronic pain develops when these normal pain signals go into overdrive, and remain active in the nervous system. It is a common condition and affects a large portion of the population.

Chronic pain can be ongoing, even after the original injury or condition has healed or resolved. The pain can be intermittent, sharp or dull, burning, steady, or can last throughout the day. Chronic pain has a widespread impact, and can affect mobility, strength, and endurance. It can also make daily movements or tasks difficult and exhausting.

Keep reading to learn more about chronic pain.

What are the symptoms of chronic pain?

The symptoms of chronic pain vary from person to person. That is because chronic pain can affect anybody at any age, in nearly any part of the body.

Common symptoms may include:

  • Headaches

  • Sharp, burning, or dull pain

  • Joint pain

  • Muscle aches

  • Fatigue

  • Sleeping problems

  • Brain fog

  • Reduced endurance

  • Mood changes

  • Stress

What causes chronic pain?

Chronic pain is a broad term that describes persistent pain. It usually does not have one specific trigger or contributing factor, rather a combination of elements. Chronic pain can be caused by a multitude of conditions, any of which can disrupt normal pain signals in the body.

Some people can experience chronic pain without any prior trigger. Sometimes the cause of the chronic pain is unknown.[2] In some cases, chronic pain may result from a health condition or injury. There are some common causes of chronic pain, however the exact mechanism is still unclear.

Common causes of chronic pain may include:

  • Arthritic changes

  • Musculoskeletal issues or injuries

  • Post-surgery complications

  • Cancer or treatment for cancer

  • Neurological issues

  • Organ issues or disease

  • Psychological factors.

Examples of chronic pain include:

  • Lower back pain - A chronic pain condition that affects the lower back

  • Fibromyalgia - A widespread musculoskeletal pain

  • Endometriosis - A painful condition where tissue resembling the lining of the uterus grows where it doesn’t belong

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome - Extreme and excessive fatigue, sometimes accompanied by pain or brain fog

  • IBS (inflammatory bowel disease) - A gut disorder of chronic inflammation and pain in the digestive system

  • TMD (temporomandibular joint dysfunction) - A painful condition affecting the jaw that can cause locking, popping, or grinding

  • Phantom limb - Pain that can be experienced in the missing amputated limb.

Chronic pain can be caused by a serious underlying medical condition, such as an infection or cancer. It is important to be aware of any red flags and consult a medical professional if there are any concerns or unexplained symptoms.

Risk factors for chronic pain

Anyone can develop chronic pain, however it is more common in the older population.

Other risk factors may include:

  • History of injury

  • Past surgeries

  • Lifestyle factors, such as increased weight

  • Gender

  • Medical history

  • Personal history.

How is chronic pain treated?

The severity and cause of chronic pain varies between different people. Therefore, the treatment plan is individualised.

The goals of therapy should be decided through discussion with everyone involved. The focus of treatment is to reduce symptoms and increase function, with the ultimate aim of returning to normal daily activities. Sometimes there is no cure for the chronic pain condition and the symptoms need to be managed over time.

Common treatments may include:

Self-care strategies

  • Ice or heat therapy

  • Exercising regularly

  • Eating a healthy diet

  • Lifestyle changes

  • Alternative therapies, such as art, music, or pet therapy

  • Stress and mood management, such as guided meditation

  • Sleep hygiene

  • Tai chi or yoga

  • Support groups or support networks

Physiotherapy and Chronic Pain

Physiotherapists are often involved in the treatment and management of chronic pain conditions. They can assess the cause of the pain and recommend various treatments to address the contributing factors of pain. In some cases, an exercise regime with specific strengthening or stretching exercises can be beneficial. Treatment may also include massage, dry needling, postural correction, and education. Physiotherapy can also help discuss strategies to manage everyday tasks and improve participation in normal daily activities.

Medical treatments

In addition to other treatment options, a doctor may recommend one or a combination of medical treatments.

These may include:

  • Over-the-counter medications

  • Prescription medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

  • Corticosteroid injections

  • Mood stabilisers

  • Referral to a specialist, such as a neurologist or pain team.

A doctor may also recommend a review with a surgeon if there is an underlying medical condition or if conservative treatments have not been successful.

Key messages

Chronic pain is a common condition that affects many people at any age. It has a widespread impact, affecting the physical, emotional, and social health of the person. There are usually multiple contributing factors, however the exact mechanism of persistent pain is not well understood.

As there are many different causes of pain, the symptoms vary from person to person. However, with the right help and treatment strategies, chronic pain can be successfully managed over time. Chronic pain can also be caused by an underlying medical issue, so it’s important to consult a doctor to discuss any unexplained or unusual symptoms.

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Published on May 30, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on May 30, 2022
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on May 30, 2022 has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.
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