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A Word to the Wise: Don’t Ignore Chronic Pain

Last updated: September 7, 2021

Everyone encounters pain at one time or another. But millions of people experience pain almost every day of their lives. In fact, according to National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data, some 50 million (about 20 percent) U.S. adults experience chronic pain at any given time. So great are the numbers that pain is the number one reason people seek medical attention, and it typically worsens with age.  

If you’re dealing with reoccurring pain, don’t ignore it. With the right treatment, you can prevent your condition from getting worse, improve your mobility, and potentially return to a pain-free life. 

When to Seek Care for Pain 

It can be hard to know if your pain will resolve on its own or requires medical attention, but the severity of pain is usually a good indicator.  

“Although relatively rare, severe pains such as headache or chest pain could be indicative of something life-threatening,” said Dr. Matt Fischer, Medical Director of Pain Management Services at ThedaCare. “Bottom line, if you’re experiencing pain that is significant enough to limit your quality of life, inhibit daily function, or even impair your sleep, we recommend speaking with somebody about it.”  

Headache or chest pain could be indicative of something life-threatening.

Matt Fischer, MD, MHA, ThedaCare

When seeking care, start with your primary care physician. They can provide the best recommendation based on the duration, location and severity of your pain. In the instance your pain is sudden, severe or rapidly accelerating, please seek urgent or emergency care. 

Here is some additional information to help you determine the appropriate method of care

Seek emergency care for … 

  • Pain, pressure, or a heavy feeling in the chest, as well as pain in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or upper back, as these symptoms could be indicative of a heart attack. 
  • A sudden, severe headache, stiff neck, confusion, fever, weakness, numbness, fainting or vomiting – symptoms commonly associated with a blood clot or stroke.  
  • Severe abdominal pain that could be the result of appendicitis, pancreatitis, a bowel blockage, or gallbladder problems. 
  • Leg pain that comes on suddenly, is sharp, and is accompanied by swelling and tenderness in one leg, as all are typical signs of a blood clot or deep vein thrombosis.  

Seek urgent care for … 

  • Headaches that occur with frequency or are more intense than a typical headache as they could be a sign of a brain tumor, brain aneurysm, or cerebral hemorrhage. 
  • Painful urination that could be indicative of kidney stones, bladder stones or a urinary tract infection. These conditions could also be accompanied by back pain or a fever. 
  • Eye pain. If something is in your eye and left untreated, it could cause permanent damage. 

Seek primary, in-person care for … 

  • Low back pain that could be related to the aging process or arthritis because of an accident earlier in your life. It could also be the result of a ruptured or herniated disk, kidney stones, or even an infection. 
  • Leg pain that is muscular but restricts your movement or is getting worse rather than better. 
  • Foot and hand pain as it could be caused by diabetic nerve damage.  
  • Pain in the joints, arms, legs, or the back of one’s head that may be caused by anxiety or a major depressive disorder.  
  • Bone pain to rule out bone cancer, breaks or fractures. 
  • Neck pain. Though commonplace following a car accident, or even sleeping wrong, neck pain can also be a sign of something much more serious, such as meningitis.  

This list is not all-inclusive. If you have pain that persists longer than a few days to a few weeks, you should be examined as soon as possible.  

Treatment Options for Chronic Pain 

In general, most temporary and moderate pain can be treated with adequate rest, heat or ice, over-the-counter pain medications, chiropractic care, and massage. For pain that is more severe or lasts longer – several weeks or months – physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other more comprehensive treatments may be considered.   

“As part of our chronic pain program, we offer mind-body strategies for individuals who have suffered with pain for a very long time,” said Dr. Fischer. “In addition, we work with patients to incorporate medications and the full spectrum of interventional pain management, such as injections, radio-frequency ablation techniques, nerve stimulation procedures, and minimally-invasive spine surgeries to treat lumbar spinal stenosis. In the last year or so we’ve incorporated additional pain-relief strategies such as peripheral nerve stimulation, dorsal root ganglion stimulation, and minimally-invasive decompression surgeries, such as Vertiflex™ and mild®.” 

Preventing Pain 

Pain can be the result of an accident, aging, or lifestyle, and in some cases, may be difficult to avoid. That said, there are a few steps we can all take to minimize our risk of experiencing chronic pain. 

“There’s good evidence to show that a person’s pain experiences can be very closely linked with their mood, sleep, and stress levels,” said Dr. Fischer. “Getting regular exercise, adequate sleep, and proper nutrition are great places to start, but I’d encourage patients to also pay close attention to their mental health and consider talking to someone – whether it be a loved one or a behavioral health specialist – to work through those challenges. I think many would be surprised to discover how closely mental and physical health are linked.”  

I’d encourage patients to also pay close attention to their mental health and consider talking to someone – whether it be a loved one or a behavioral health specialist.

Matt Fischer, MD, MHA, ThedaCare 

Other pain prevention methods can be quite simple, such as:  

  • Pacing yourself 
  • Exercising caution in inclement weather conditions, especially snow and ice 
  • Recognizing your limitations 
  • Using common sense 

“People should not expose themselves to certain activities that would unnecessarily increase their risk for injury,” said Dr. Fischer. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have any fun or explore new hobbies, just be safe about it. A little caution now could save you a lot of pain later.”

Has your pain worsened over time? Is it starting to interfere with your daily life? Our orthopedic experts can help you feel more like yourself again. 

Tags: chronic pain emergency care orthopedics Pain Management pain prevention urgent care when to seek care

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