Chronic Conditions

Understanding Chronic Pain

Do you live with chronic pain? Does pain seem to infiltrate every area of your life, to the point that it is affecting your quality of life? If so, you are not alone. In this article, I will discuss some of the most important aspects of understanding chronic pain—its complex condition and how it works. In a subsequent post, I will present a “Chronic Pain Toolbox” that will equip you with essential self-management skills, so that you can be empowered to regain the quality of life you deserve.

Living with Chronic Pain

understanding chronic pain

For millions of people, living with pain and physical discomfort has become a way of life. Indeed, chronic pain is now one of the most common problems plaguing adults, with 1 in 3 people being affected by it. Indeed, it is more prevalent than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. With chronic pain, living a full and active life may seem out of reach. But it doesn’t have to be this way! On the contrary, it is possible to improve both your level of functioning and quality of life while reducing your pain symptoms. The key is to have an effective approach, along with the right skills and support. But in order to take control of chronic pain, it is necessary to understand how it works and how it affects us. This is what I will focus on today.

Understanding the Chronic Pain Experience

Chronic pain–regardless of cause– is a complex experience—something that is influenced by physical, psychological, and even environmental factors. Things like lack of sleep, stress, and feelings of anxiety, depression, fear or frustration can all play a considerable role in your symptoms. As I will discuss in a subsequent post, by addressing the many factors affecting your pain, you can better manage and control your chronic pain symptoms both safely and naturally.

understanding chronic pain

Factors that Contribute to Chronic Pain

The Vicious Cycle of Chronic Pain

For people with chronic pain, what determines the day-to-day level of pain has very much to do with the way your mind and body respond to it. For example, whenever a part of your body is hurting, the brain automatically attempts to limit the movement of that area. This leads to stiffness and muscle tension, which in turn cause even more pain. As a result, when someone suffers from chronic pain, what happens is that their overall activity level diminishes and their muscles becomes weak and deconditioned, often to the point that even the slightest activity hurts. On top of that, pain often leads to feelings of anxiety, frustration, sadness, or depression—emotions that further exacerbate the sensation of pain by increasing your body’s sensitivity to it.

understanding chronic pain

Endorphins: The Natural Painkiller

The good news in all of this is that you do not need to be helpless in your pain. This is because your brain plays an immense role in chronic pain; it acts as the gatekeeper with the ability to allow you to feel pain as well as block the sensation of pain. What does this mean for you? It means that your mindset—what you think and how you feel—makes a huge difference in the actual degree of physical pain that you feel.

understanding chronic pain

To be clear, this is not to say that your symptoms are “all in your head.” On the contrary, it is now known that most if not all chronic pain–even those that don’t have a specific diagnosis–come from some physical cause, such as damaged or inflamed nerves, blood vessels, muscles, or other tissues. Rather, the point is that your brain has the remarkable ability to secrete natural painkillers (called endorphins) that work very similarly to powerful pain medications you might take in the form of a pill. 

One of the keys to effectively controlling chronic pain symptoms, therefore, is to take advantage of this process by incorporating certain activities into your day that encourage the release of endorphins. In my next post, I will expound more on this by presenting practical ways in which you can manage your chronic pain and minimize the effect it has on your daily life.


*The information presented in “Understanding Chronic Pain” can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.




Phoebe Chi, MD
Phoebe Chi, MD

As a physician educator and the managing editor of Health + Inspiration, Dr. Chi aims to inspire, inform, and empower the reader community. She is the author of Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, a poetry-infused health guide, and founder of Pendants for a Cause, a nonprofit organization with the purpose of raising funds to fight illness, provide care, and bring awareness to medically vulnerable populations around the world.

Pendants for a Cause Charity Jewelry

50 replies »

  1. I have been dealing with intense chronic pain at least since I was 19 years old (and I’m 36 now). This is the kind of chronic pain that debilitates you and can get so bad sometimes you even wish for the sweet release of death just to escape the pain. For many years I didn’t know why I was in pain. I got many diagnoses – fibromyalgia, CFS, nerve pain, chronic inflammation, early onset arthritis, degenerative disc disease, plantar fasciitis…they started to pile up. This past year I was officially diagnosed by a geneticist with Ehlers Danlos which kind of finally provides somewhat of an answer and ties up all the issues I’ve had most of my life.

    I also wonder if the fact that I have high functioning autism doesn’t make me more sensitive to pain. After all, my senses are more sensitive than an average persons in general, why would it be so weird to think that I may be more sensitive to pain too? When I was growing up I always wondered how people wore tags in their clothes since they hurt so much, but now I understand that to many people they don’t hurt. I wonder how much of life is like that? What might hurt me that others would think nothing of?

    • You bring up some great points, and I think you are definitely correct in thinking that you may be more sensitive to pain than some others. I’m sorry to hear about how much you have had to go through and are still going through, but your strength is evident even in your words I’ve read just now.

      Thank you for reading, and I wish you the best!

  2. I do not think that people should ever live with pain, let alone chronic pain. I know too many people doing this and just accepting it. I will forward your information on. Thank you for the great post.

  3. Thank you, Phoebe. I live in chronic pain due to the disease process in my body. Laughter, a positive attitude, and chocolate help relieve the pain. Without my friends who encourage me, it would be difficult to make it through the day.

    This series Is enlightening and fascinating. I especially liked the post I read about on diabetes because I have Diabetes Two as well. I just got out of the hospital on Friday after nine months stay. Now on dealing with a stage 4 wound that openedto the bone. I’ve had six surgeries on it after a bout with osteomyelitis. The flap is healing but there’s the wound below it. My seventh surgery will be next Wednesday. My plastic surgeon will be doing a graft to heal the wound completely.

    I know proteins and good nutrition are necessary to help heal this but wondered if you had any other comments regarding this kind of issue. Thank you and bless you for all you pour out in your blog for us.

    • Hi Nancy. You certainly have gone through a lot. You are right; protein is essential for wound healing. In addition to eating a protein-rich diet (which will also help your sugars), you may want to consider some sort of a sugar-free protein supplement (such as whey protein). To make sure that you are not lacking in any nutrients, a multivitamin may also be beneficial. In addition, there are actually supplement blends that are specifically FOR wound healing. Here is an article about a particular one called InflammEnz and how it has been shown to speed up wound healing after surgery:

      I hope this helps. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you ever have any questions about anything!

    • What hard thing to deal with. I understand well having a serious illness and years long recouperation. I am mostly on the other side, but the effects of aging on top still surface. But the positive side, my appreciation for being alive would not what it is had I not experienced it, as well as increased compassion for other people. I learned not waste my days, or even hours, and fill them with something of value for me. Too many people cave or complain and their illness defines them. I hope your surgeries are successful and will bring a new positive change in your life in how you deal with new obstacles. I have thought – since I have overcome this, I can overcome anything!

      • Thank you SonniQ. I am 66 years old now and thank God for all I’ve gotten through. It has increased my compassion for others as well. I wrote a memoir and have a website called slavery shatters lives in the hopes I might help others. I’m happy to hear you’re on the upside and I pray you continue to do well regardless of our aging process. 🙂

We welcome you to share...