Pain is typically considered to be a symptom of an injury, disease or condition; it is simply the transmission of information through nerves about damage to the body. Chronic pain however, is a bit more complex than that. Often what happens in chronic pain is that that the pain outlives its original causes such as a broken limb, ruptured disk, nerve damage etc, it worsens over time, and takes on a life of its own.
There is increasing evidence that over time, untreated chronic pain eventually rewrites the central nervous system (CNS), causing changes to the brain and spinal cord, and that these in turn cause greater pain. Scary huh?! The nervous system develops feedback loops and pain becomes a disease in itself. Pain is then no longer a function of a healthy nervous system (signalling that there is an injury or illness), it becomes the problem and needs to be treated as the primary pathology. The TED talk by Elliot Krane below explains this in more detail, please watch.
It’s funny, I remember a good few years ago, a medical professional suggesting that I had, in her words, ‘pain memory,’ and I was absolutely appalled at her suggestion. I remember feeling like a fraud, like she was questioning whether my pain was even real and whether it was all in my head. But actually now, I can see what she was trying to say. She wasn’t questioning me, she knew I was in pain, she was suggesting there may no longer be a pain source and but my brain never forgot the pain – the problem lied with my nervous system constantly telling my brain that I am in pain. I have since been given a skeptical diagnosis of Post Herpetic Neuralgia (neuropathic pain after the shingles virus), and if that was the source of my pain, then why when I take medication to keep shingles at bay every day am I still in pain and the pain is still worsening over time? Something to think about.
I hope with all my heart that in the future there will be, as Elliot suggests, disease modifying drugs for chronic pain that stop the feedback loops in the CNS and eradicate chronic pain! I hope that happens in our lifetime as there are so many suffering, it would be a miracle