Everyone experiences pain at some point in their life. Many times, it is acute, lasting no longer than a few months. Other times, the pain doesn’t go away quite as quickly. When it lasts longer than six months, it becomes chronic pain or persistent pain.
Chronic pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical care. It affects approximately one out of every three people in the U.S.
Specific populations are more susceptible to chronic pain than others—for example, older adults and people with certain medical conditions.
When left untreated, long-term pain can have devastating effects on a person’s health and overall well-being. Over time, it can affect a person’s cognitive and brain function, mood, mental health, sexual function, relationships, sleep, and more.
Ways Chronic Pain Can Affect Your Health
1) Cognitive and brain function: Chronic pain can be stressful, both physically and mentally. Studies have shown that persistent pain can change the levels of hormones and neurochemicals in your brain and nervous system. In the process, it can alter your mood, thinking, and behavior.
2) Mood and mental health: Untreated pain can have adverse effects on a person’s mental health. Those with chronic pain are roughly four times more likely to experience depression or anxiety than those who are not in pain. The prevalence of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts is also higher among those with chronic pain.
3) Brain: Researchers have found that chronic pain can change structures in your brain over time. Researchers have found that chronic pain can change the size of the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and gray matter.
Gray matter, for example, is responsible for processing information. Gray matter has been shown to decrease over time in those with chronic pain. The impact gray matter loss has on a person depends on where it occurs, but it can lead to memory impairment, emotional problems, and decreased cognitive function.
4) Sexual function: 54-63% of people with chronic pain report impaired sexual function. Common complaints include difficulty with arousal, confidence, and positions. Some people may struggle with sex because they are afraid of worsening their pain. These problems can make it difficult for those struggling to enter and maintain romantic relationships.
5) Relationships: In addition to difficulty with romantic relationships, chronic pain can also make it hard to maintain other types of relationships, like those with friends and family. One reason is that pain can make it harder for a person to empathize with others. It can also cause physical limitations, making it more challenging to participate in certain activities. As a result, those who are in constant pain may avoid social situations altogether.
6) Sleep: Chronic pain and sleep are inversely related. But research suggests that sleep may play a more significant role in pain than pain plays in sleep. For example, those with chronic pain often claim their pain level decreases with adequate sleep.
Still, those with chronic pain often experience sleep disturbances, and the severity of pain is directly related to the degree of sleep disturbances.
Certain sleeping positions may exacerbate feelings of discomfort. Also, pain may become inflamed at night, which can make it difficult to fall asleep. Other times, pain can wake a person up at night and make it tough to fall back asleep.
Living with pain every day can affect a person’s overall quality of life. It can have a negative influence on a person’s thinking, feeling, and behavior. By understanding how pain affects a person’s mental and physical health, researchers can innovative methods to help manage it.