What is persistent pain?

Persistent pain is any pain that goes on for longer than would be expected after an injury or illness.  Pain is initially produced when we have an injury or to let us know something is wrong.  When we have an injury our bodies produce chemicals which cause our pain nerves to become more sensitive so that we get pain as a “warning sign” before we injure ourselves further.  Normally, once the injury gets better our nerves go back to normal and the pain stops. 

Unfortunately, in some people their nerves stay too sensitive.  This means that they continue to get pain even though there is no longer any problem with the body’s tissues.  This can also mean that they have to reduce the amount of activity that they do.  Sometimes people also become concerned about the cause of the pain and worry about damaging things more.  Unfortunately, this causes the nerves to become even more sensitive, often meaning that the pain gets worse and starts to affect different parts of the body.

Not everyone develops persistent pain following an injury.  Some people find that their symptoms start without any obvious cause.  We know that other things can also cause the nervous system to become too sensitive.  For example, we know that poor quality sleep, low mood and stressful life events (such as a bereavement or losing a job) can cause the pain nerves to become too sensitive. 

For other people, long standing health problems (such as breathing problems or arthritis) can cause people to stop exercising as much as previously.  Not only does this mean that the body becomes less fit, the nerves are no longer used to doing activities and can start to send pain messages when doing activities that used to be painless.  This is known as the persistent pain cycle.

Persistent pain can be extremely uncomfortable, particularly when doing activities that are harder than usual or that you are not used to doing.  It is important to remember though that even though you may be in a lot of pain, this does not mean that there is a serious underlying problem with the tissues of your body.  Similarly, persistent pain is not a sign that you are damaging your body more.  There are no tests to diagnose persistent pain.  Sometimes other investigations, such as MRI scans or blood tests can be useful in excluding other causes for the pain.  However, these investigations are only helpful if you have certain symptoms and often they do not add any extra information.  Most commonly the best way to diagnose painful conditions is through a thorough assessment with a health professional that specialises in working with people with long-term pain.

This short video explains persistent pain further: