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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.

According to National Health Interview Survey data, about 20% of U.S. adults experience chronic pain at any given time. So great are the numbers that pain is the No. 1 reason people seek medical attention, and it typically worsens with age.  

If you’re dealing with recurring pain, don’t ignore it. With the right treatment, you can prevent your condition from worsening, improve your mobility, and potentially return to a life with less pain. 

When to Seek Care for Pain 

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

“Although relatively rare, severe pains such as headache or chest pain could indicate something life-threatening,” says Dr. Matt Fischer, a Pain Management Specialist and 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.”  

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. If your pain is sudden, severe, or rapidly accelerating, 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. These symptoms could indicate a heart attack.
  • A sudden, severe headache, stiff neck, confusion, fever, weakness, numbness, fainting, or vomiting. These symptoms are commonly associated with a blood clot or stroke. 
  • Severe abdominal pain that could indicate 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. These are typical signs of a blood clot or deep vein thrombosis.  

Choose urgent care for … 

  • Headaches that occur frequently or are more intense than a typical headache. These could signal a brain tumor, brain aneurysm, or cerebral hemorrhage. 
  • Painful urination that could indicate kidney stones, bladder stones, or a urinary tract infection. Back pain or a fever also can accompany these conditions. 
  • Eye pain. If something is in your eye and remains untreated, it could cause permanent damage. 

select primary, in-person care for … 

  • Low back pain that could be related to aging or arthritis. It could also result from a ruptured or herniated disk, kidney stones, or an infection. 
  • Leg pain that is muscular but restricts your movement or is getting worse rather than better. 
  • Foot and hand pain, as diabetic nerve damage can cause these issues. 
  • Pain in the joints, arms, legs, or the back of the head. Anxiety or a major depressive disorder can lead to these symptoms.  
  • Bone pain, to rule out bone cancer, breaks, or fractures. 
  • Neck pain. Though common following a car accident, or even sleeping wrong, neck pain also can signal something 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, seek care as soon as possible.  

Treatment Options for Chronic Pain 

In general, most temporary and moderate pain is treatable with adequate rest, heat or ice, and over-the-counter pain medications. For pain that is more severe or lasts longer — several weeks or months — your doctor may recommend physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other more comprehensive treatments.   

“As part of our chronic pain program, we offer mind-body strategies for individuals who have suffered with pain for a very long time,” Dr. Fischer says. 

Pain management specialists also can work with patients to incorporate medications and the full spectrum of interventional pain management treatments. These can include injections, radiofrequency ablation techniques, nerve stimulation procedures, and minimally invasive spine surgery 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®,” Dr. Fischer says. 

Preventing Pain 

Pain can result from an accident, aging, or lifestyle. In some cases, it’s difficult to avoid. That said, people can take some steps to minimize their risk of experiencing chronic pain. 

There’s good evidence to show that a person’s pain experiences can be closely linked with their mood, sleep, and stress levels, Dr. Fischer says. Getting regular exercise, adequate sleep, and proper nutrition are great places to start.

“I’d also encourage patients to 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,” he says. “I think many would be surprised to discover how closely mental and physical health are linked.”  

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

Dr. Matt Fischer, Pain Management Specialist, ThedaCare 

Other simple pain prevention steps include:  

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

“People shouldn’t expose themselves to certain activities that would unnecessarily increase their risk for injury,” Dr. Fischer says. “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.”

Experiencing worsening or disruptive pain? 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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