Everyone experiences some type of pain at some point in their lives. Minor illnesses or injuries — you bang your arm on the table, for example, or suffer a bout of strep throat — are usually temporary and get better with treatment. Overuse is another common culprit for pain. If you spend three hours on the tennis court when you haven’t so much as picked up a racket in a year, there’s a good chance that your muscles are going to be sore at the end of the day.
Sometimes, though, pain isn’t temporary, and requires more intervention than rest and a couple ibuprofen pills. When pain becomes chronic, meaning that it persists for several months or longer, it’s usually time to see a doctor. In fact, there are several signs that you need to see a doctor right away to ease your pain.
1. The Pain Gets Worse
Anytime you have pain that doesn’t get better in time, you should seek medical attention. Even injuries that seem minor can be serious, and worsening pain is often a sign of a bigger problem. However, if you have chronic pain that becomes more severe over time, and no longer responds to home treatment, a visit to the doctor is in order. It’s unlikely that this type of pain will get better on its own.
2. You Cannot Function Normally
Living with chronic pain general means having good days and bad days. Several factors can influence how much pain you have on any given day; the weather, what you eat, your activity level, even your mood can all play a role in how much you hurt — or don’t. However, when your pain prevents you from functioning normally for several days or longer, you may need additional treatment. Of course, “normal” function is different for everyone.
For example, if you usually work out every day, and find that your joint or back pain is keeping you from the gym, then that’s reason enough to see a doctor. Someone with a more sedentary lifestyle, on the other hand, may define normal function as simply being able to walk or complete basic care tasks. Either way, modern pain management practices are designed to take individual goals and lifestyles into account, and can restore normal function, whatever that may be.
3. You Have Additional Symptoms
Again, acute pain stemming from injuries or illnesses often comes with additional symptoms such as bruising, swelling, and redness. In most cases, those symptoms subside as the injury heals. If you have chronic pain and suddenly notice other symptoms, including those mentioned as well as fever, chills, or nausea, it’s important to see a doctor right away. These are often signs of an infection, which could become serious if left untreated.
4. The Pain Isn’t Localized
When pain is acute, the location and the source are generally one and the same. In other words, if you twist your ankle, then the pain is in your ankle. Chronic pain, on the other hand, often shows up somewhere other than the source. For example, chronic knee pain can actually be caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve in the lower back, or by problems with the hips.
If that’s the case, the knee will feel sore, but actually pressing on the joint doesn’t make any measurable difference in the pain. Because pain in the extremities is so often linked to issues in the spine or nerve problems in other parts of the body, getting an evaluation for non-localized pain as soon as possible is important, so as to avoid other more serious problems in the future.
5. There’s No Apparent Cause for the Pain
Again, the cause of acute pain is often obvious. Chronic pain? Not so much. Sometimes, you might have an inkling as to what’s behind your discomfort; you know your mattress is old, or that you aren’t maintaining good posture when working at your desk. Other times, there’s no obvious reason for the pain. If that’s the case, visiting a pain specialist can help you pinpoint the cause of the pain and identify interventions that will make it better.
There’s no need to live with chronic pain. With so many options for treating pain, from surgery and medication to behavioral modifications and cognitive therapy, no matter the cause of the pain, there’s an option to bring relief — but only if you take the first step and get help.