Almost everyone experiences pain at some point in their lives. But, how do you know when to ride it out and when it’s time to call the doctor? Pain is a complex condition with many possible causes, so the answer is not always clear.
Pain is the most common reason people see a doctor, according to the National Institutes of Health. And chronic pain is the leading cause of disability in the United States. In fact, more Americans have chronic pain than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined.
Acute vs. Chronic Pain
- Acute Pain: Comes on suddenly and is temporary. For example, you sprain your ankle, pass a kidney stone, or have surgery. This pain can be sharp and hard to ignore.
- Chronic Pain: Can last for weeks, months or even years. You have an aching back, get frequent headaches, or have arthritis. This pain is more difficult to treat and its cause may be unknown.
Most physicians, will tell you that if pain continues for weeks or months, and over-the-counter medications and standard treatments are not effective, it’s time to seek medical help for your pain management.
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Pain Management Options
When you experience acute pain, your first line of defense is often to reach for an over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication, such as acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) or ibuprofen (i.e., Advil or Motrin). You may also need to rest, ice or elevate the area causing discomfort.
Chronic pain requires a longer-term strategy that may include:
- See your primary care doctor. He or she can help identify the cause of your pain and investigate treatment options.
- Consult a pain management specialist. If your pain continues or gets worse, your physician may refer you to a pain specialist.
- Manage your medicine. A variety of medicines may be used to manage the complexities of chronic pain. Your doctor may prescribe a narcotic or other prescription drug that can have side effects, including physical and psychological addiction. It’s important to follow instructions carefully and keep all healthcare providers advised of medicines and supplements you are taking.
- Investigate healing therapies. When you’re under stress, you’re less able to control your response to pain. Acupuncture, biofeedback, yoga, massage and music therapy may be effective in reducing stress and anxiety.
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle. The same behaviors that reduce your risk of disease can help you manage chronic pain. Eat a plant-based diet, limit or eliminate alcohol, stay active and maintain a healthy weight.
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