Chronic Pain: What You Need to Know

Chronic pain is generally defined as pain that lasts longer than 3 to 6 months. This pain can come from:

  • An acute injury or surgical wound that is past its normal healing time
  • Chronic medical conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or fibromyalgia

See Acute vs. Chronic Pain

The source of chronic pain is often difficult to pinpoint and may require testing or visiting a specialist. The treatment for chronic pain will differ depending on what a doctor believes is the source. For instance, the treatment for chronic pain due to Crohn’s, fibromyalgia or arthritis will be different from chronic pain after recovering from a back surgery.

See Common Conditions That Cause Chronic Pain

Even after the source of chronic pain is identified, effective pain treatment may require trial-and-error.

This article will discuss what chronic pain feels like, non-physical aspects, pain management, and general treatment options.

See Managing Chronic Pain Without Opioids


What Does Chronic Pain Feel Like?

Other than being long-lasting, the symptoms of chronic pain will vary widely and are distinct to the health condition as well as the individual. Chronic pain can range from uncomfortable but bearable to intense and disabling. It can occur anywhere on the body and is not always localized to one area. Common types of pain sensations include, but are not limited to:

  • A burning feeling
  • Dull muscle aches
  • Electric, shooting pains
  • Hypersensitivity to light touch (allodynia)
  • Stabbing pain
  • Tenderness or soreness
  • A tingling or prickly feeling

Chronic pain may worsen with movement, or fluctuate throughout the day. It may be difficult to predict how the pain will change from one day to the next. Being able to describe how pain feels to a health care provider will help assure a person gets an accurate diagnosis.

See Choosing and Meeting with a Pain Management Specialist

More Than Just Physical Pain

While chronic pain is a broad category that encompasses many different feelings and conditions, it is usually associated with these non-physical features:

There is no timetable for healing
With acute pain, such as from a bone fracture, there is a clear timetable for when the pain will end, the injury will heal, and when full functioning will return. Chronic pain lacks these comforting benchmarks and instead has many unknowns.

Emotions play a role
Chronic pain is often characterized by a lack of answers, which can leave a person feeling confused, fearful, and depressed. These feelings, along with physical pain, can result in a form of suffering that is not typically associated with other types of pain.

Outside environment will have an impact
Similar to many aspects of life, the way a person deals with chronic pain will often be dependent on his or her work, family, and social life. For example, a person who works in an office with low physical demands may be able to keep his or her job, while a person with similar levels of pain and a physically-demanding role may have to find an alternative.


While physical factors play a large role in chronic pain, psychological and social elements can be equally as important to how a person feels and how much he or she “suffers” from the pain.

See Factors That Open or Close the Pain Gates

Chronic pain can be somewhat of an anomaly, which may make it difficult to understand and treat. For example, it is not uncommon to have a person in excruciating pain but has minimal medical or physical findings to explain the pain. On the other hand, there are cases in which the diagnostic tests show very severe physical problems (e.g. a spine MRI shows a lot of damage), yet the person is successfully coping with the pain.

Many experts believe that many of the above differences can be explained by how the patient processes the pain signal in the brain and this may be affected by psychological and social factors.