Many people struggle with long-term pain. But help from your GP and pain services can lessen the pain, improve your independence and help you cope in general.
Some people may have a condition such as arthritis or diabetes nerve pain. Others may have a painful condition that medical science doesn't fully understand, such as long-term back pain.
Often, chronic pain is an illness in its own right, due to a fault or malfunction in the body's pain system.
It's important that people, including doctors and other clinicians, take you and your pain seriously. The answer to managing your pain may not necessarily be stronger and stronger painkillers (analgesics).
According to Dr Alf Collins, a consultant in pain management at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton, people who have long-term pain should be thought of as having a pain-related disability.
He advises asking yourself the following questions: “What is the pain getting in the way of? How can you set goals for the future? How can painkillers help you reach your goals? How can you cope, become more independent and manage this for yourself? How can your family, carers and healthcare staff support you in your plans to be more in control of your life?"
Dr Collins says, "People with long-term pain often have a variety of problems. The emotional consequences come not just from the pain, but from how the pain changes the way they live their lives and perhaps the way they think about themselves."
What can your GP do?
If you have short-term (acute) pain, your GP will try to make a diagnosis and treat the pain.
If you have long-term pain, it might be as a result of a diagnosed medical condition, a painful condition that is not yet fully understood or no underlying condition at all. This doesn't mean you don't have pain, it means that a different approach to managing that pain might be helpful.
If you have mild to moderate pain, for example as a result of arthritis, your GP can talk to you about pain relief medication and other ways of managing the pain, such as:
- going on an NHS self-help course like the Expert Patients Programme (a six-week course for people who have a long-term condition)
- attending a Challenging Arthritis course run by Arthritis Care
- having a series of sessions with a counsellor or clinical psychologist
If your pain is more severe and affecting your quality of life, damaging your mobility and stopping you leaving the house, you could probably benefit from a referral to your local pain management services.
There are around 300 pain clinics in the UK. Most are located in hospitals and have teams of staff from different medical areas, including occupational therapists, psychologists, doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. They all work together to help people with pain.
Pain clinics vary but usually offer a variety of treatments aimed at relieving long-term pain, such as painkilling drugs, injections, hypnotherapy and acupuncture.
You will need to be referred to a pain clinic by your GP or hospital consultant.
Pain management programmes
Pain management programmes are a series of sessions, for groups of 6-8 people, aimed at teaching you how to live with your pain. Instead of treating your pain, you learn to cope with it, gaining skills such as setting realistic goals and managing your moods and pain flare-ups. Research shows that after going on a pain management programme, the patient's confidence grows and they can expect to enjoy a better quality of life, sleep and mobility as a result.
Some hospital and community pain services offer pain management programmes, and some are run by GPs.
As with pain clinics, you will need a referral from a GP or hospital specialist to join a pain management programme.