Chronic pain last months or years and happens in all parts of the body. It interferes with daily life and can lead to depression and anxiety. The first step in treatment is to find and treat the cause. When that isn’t possible, the most effective approach is a combination of medications, therapies and lifestyle changes.
Chronic pain is pain that lasts for over three months. The pain can be there all the time, or it may come and go. It can happen anywhere in your body.
Chronic pain can interfere with your daily activities, such as working, having a social life and taking care of yourself or others. It can lead to depression, anxiety and trouble sleeping, which can make your pain worse. This response creates a cycle that’s difficult to break.
Chronic pain differs from another type of pain called acute pain. Acute pain happens when you get hurt, such as experiencing a simple cut to your skin or a broken bone. It doesn’t last long, and it goes away after your body heals from whatever caused the pain. In contrast, chronic pain continues long after you recover from an injury or illness. Sometimes it even happens for no obvious reason.
Chronic pain can come in many different forms and appear across your body. Common types of chronic pain include:
Chronic pain is a very common condition, and one of the most common reasons why someone seeks medical care. Approximately 25% of adults in the United States experience chronic pain.
Sometimes chronic pain has an obvious cause. You may have a long-lasting illness such as arthritis or cancer that can cause ongoing pain.
Injuries and diseases can also cause changes to your body that leave you more sensitive to pain. These changes can stay in place even after you’ve healed from the original injury or disease. Something like a sprain, a broken bone or a brief infection can leave you with chronic pain.
Some people also have chronic pain that’s not tied to an injury or physical illness. Healthcare providers call this response psychogenic pain or psychosomatic pain. It’s caused by psychological factors such as stress, anxiety and depression. Many scientists believe this connection comes from low levels of endorphins in the blood. Endorphins are natural chemicals that trigger positive feelings.
It’s possible to have several causes of pain overlap. You could have two different diseases, for example. Or you could have something like migraines and psychogenic pain together.
People with chronic pain describe their pain in many different ways, such as:
Chronic pain often leads to other symptoms and conditions, including:
Pain is considered to be chronic if it lasts or comes and goes (recurs) for more than three months. Pain is usually a symptom, so your healthcare provider needs to determine what’s causing your pain, if possible. Pain is subjective — only the person experiencing it can identify and describe it — so it can be difficult for providers to determine the cause.
If you have long-lasting pain, see your healthcare provider. Your provider will want to know:
Your healthcare provider may physically examine your body and order tests to look for the cause of the pain. They may have you undergo the following tests:
To relieve chronic pain, healthcare providers first try to identify and treat the cause. But sometimes they can’t find the source. If so, they turn to treating, or managing, the pain.
Healthcare providers treat chronic pain in many different ways. The approach depends on many factors, including:
The best treatment plans use a variety of strategies, including medications, lifestyle changes and therapies.
If you have chronic pain and depression and/or anxiety, it’s important to seek treatment for your mental health condition(s) as well. Having depression or anxiety can make your chronic pain worse. For example, if you have depression, the fatigue, sleep changes and decreased activity it may cause can make your chronic pain worse.
Your healthcare provider may recommend certain medications to relieve chronic pain, including:
Other medical treatments your healthcare provider may have you try include:
Every medication has a potential for side effects — some are more serious than others. Be sure to discuss the possible side effects of your chronic pain medications with your healthcare provider.
Complications from medical treatments for chronic pain can include:
Four major lifestyle factors can affect your chronic pain and help minimize it. Healthcare providers sometimes call them the four pillars of chronic pain. They include:
Be sure to discuss these four lifestyle pillars with your healthcare provider to determine how each applies to your type of chronic pain and how you can incorporate changes into your day-to-day life.
Certain therapies may help you manage chronic pain, including:
Alternative treatments that have been shown to relieve chronic pain over time include:
Currently, there is no cure for chronic pain, other than to identify and treat its cause. For example, treating arthritis can sometimes stop joint pain.
Many people with chronic pain don’t know its cause and can’t find a cure. They use a combination of medications, therapies and lifestyle changes to lessen pain.
Since many conditions or injuries can cause chronic pain, there are several risk factors for experiencing it. Some risk factors include:
Unfortunately, nothing has been proven to prevent chronic pain in general. You may be able to prevent certain conditions that lead to chronic pain. For example, you can quit smoking to lower your risk of lung cancer.
Chronic pain usually doesn’t go away, but you can manage it with a combination of strategies that work for you. Current chronic pain treatments can reduce a person’s pain score by about 30%.
Researchers continue to study pain disorders. Advances in neuroscience and a better understanding of the human body should lead to more effective treatments.
If you have chronic pain and depression and/or anxiety, it’s important to seek treatment for your mental health. Untreated depression and anxiety can make your pain worse and further lower your quality of life.
Complications of chronic pain can include:
The complications of chronic pain are serious. Because of this, it’s essential to seek medical care if you’re experiencing chronic pain. There are many options for pain treatment and management. While it may take a while to find the right combination of therapies that work for you, it’s worth undertaking.
If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. Someone will be available to talk with you 24 hours a day.
Besides taking medications, getting therapy and making lifestyle changes, take good care of yourself. The following actions can help you cope with your chronic pain and improve your overall health:
If you have chronic pain, it may be helpful to ask your healthcare provider the following questions:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Chronic pain lasts months or years and can interfere with your ability to work, enjoy activities and take care of yourself or others. If you have chronic pain, please talk to a healthcare provider or pain specialist. There are ways to manage your pain to help you toward a more comfortable life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/01/2021.
Learn more about our editorial process.