In many cases, chronic pain is related to a medical condition, such as joint degeneration, autoimmune disorders, or diseases. The following page discusses the most common conditions associated with chronic pain.

Joint Pain Due to Wear-and-Tear and Acute Injuries

Joint pain is often associated with pain, stiffness, and swelling. Below are a few common causes of joint pain:

  • Back and neck problems, the most common cause of chronic pain is low back pain.1
  • Osteoarthritis, painful symptoms may develop when the cartilage that provides cushioning between the joints breaks down.
  • Bursitis, inflammation and a buildup of fluid in a bursa sac can cause painful symptoms. Bursitis is often found in the knee, shoulder, elbow, and hip.

Joint pain may also be caused by psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and gout to name a few.

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Autoimmune Disorders

The immune system protects the body from disease and infection. Autoimmune disorders, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, cause the immune system to attack healthy cells. There are hundreds of autoimmune conditions. Examples include:

  • Celiac disease, a condition in which eating gluten triggers inflammation and can harm the small intestine.
  • Lupus, which can damage the joints and major organs of the body, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, a type of inflammatory arthritis and autoimmune disorder in which the immune cells target the fluid that lubricates the joints.

Autoimmune diseases are treatable but are often life-long.

Cancer

Cancer is a disease that causes abnormal cell growth, destroys tissue, and causes a wide range of symptoms. Cancer can happen nearly anywhere in the body. Common cancers include breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, melanoma, and lung cancer among others.2

Chronic Pain Syndromes

Chronic pain syndromes can cause multiple symptoms and are often difficult to diagnose. Examples of these syndromes include:

  • Complex regional pain syndrome, which typically includes severe pain in the hands, feet, legs, or arms. Burning pain and joint stiffness are likely symptoms.
  • Fibromyalgia, which is marked by widespread musculoskeletal pain and extreme fatigue and often co-occurring with other conditions.
  • Myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome), a condition characterized by physical exhaustion and a range of other symptoms for example, musculoskeletal pain and sleep abnormalities.
  • Myofascial pain syndrome, which typically includes muscle knots and muscle tightness that restrict movement.

Chronic pain syndromes may require a team of doctors to diagnose and treat.

Gastrointestinal Diseases

Gastrointestinal diseases refer to diseases affecting the stomach, small intestines, large intestines, and rectum. Common gastrointestinal diseases include but are not limited to:

  • IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
  • IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), which includes two conditions—
    • Crohn’s disease
    • Ulcerative colitis

Each condition causes a variety of symptoms that can range from mild to severe including abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, and constipation.

Headaches and Migraines

Headaches and migraines can be mild, excruciating, brief, or long-lasting.

  • Headaches occur when swelling in the muscles or blood vessels in the scalp, neck, or face cause sensory nerves to send pain signals to the brain. There are many different types of headaches including tension and cluster.
  • See Tension, Migraine, and Cluster Headaches

  • Migraines are often debilitating and can involve a throbbing pain at the front of the head. Migraines can last up to 72 hours and are often accompanied by other symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
  • See Migraines: More Than a Headache

Headaches can also be related to stress or inadequate sleep.

See Understanding Headaches

Infectious Diseases

Infections, such as meningitis and Lyme disease, are typically the result of bacteria or viruses and can be spread directly or indirectly from person to person. In most cases, infectious diseases can be treated and symptoms go away, but sometimes they can lead to chronic pain. Examples of infectious diseases frequently associated with chronic pain include:

  • Meningitis. The inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.
  • Shingles. Caused by the same virus as chickenpox, it is characterized by shooting or burning pain, rashes and blisters.
  • Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. These diseases can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease. Symptoms may include body aches, a stiff neck, fever, and fatigue.

While infectious disease symptoms can last long enough to be categorized as chronic, they may get better or go away completely over time.

Neuropathy

Neuropathy can develop when nerves become dysfunctional or damaged, causing a hypersensitivity to pain. Sharp, electric, stabbing, burning or cold pains, as well as numbness and tingling, are common.

  • Diabetic neuropathy is a condition that often affects the legs and feet. It is the result of nerve damage brought on by diabetes.
  • Peripheral neuropathy is associated with damage to the peripheral nervous system (nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord). It can affect many parts of the body.

Nerve damage may be caused by injury, stress, and disease.

Diagnosing the root cause of chronic pain can be challenging and time-consuming. More than one painful chronic condition may be experienced at the same time.

It is important to alert a healthcare provider if a person has symptoms that persist in order to be properly diagnosed and obtain the appropriate care.

References:

  1. American Academy of Pain Medicine Facts and Figures on Pain, www.painmed.org/PatientCenter/Facts_on_Pain.aspx#incidence. Accessed June 28, 2018.
  2. Common Cancer Types. National Cancer Institute website. https://www.cancer.gov/types/common-cancers. Updated February 26, 2018. Accessed July 9, 2018.
Further Reading: Acute vs. Chronic Pain