What Happens If Chronic Pain Isn’t Treated?

Your arm has been sore for months, and now it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep because you can’t roll over in bed. What’s worse, moving or otherwise using your arm results in terrible pain, nearly debilitating in nature. And you don’t recall ever getting injured. It’s possible you have chronic pain, but what happens if you just ignore it?

According to the experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine, pain can be mildly bothersome like a mild headache, to discomfort agonizing and sudden, like chest pain that’s often paired with a heart attack, or stinging pain from kidney stones. Your pain could be acute, a recent development, borderline severe, persisting for weeks or months, “and chronic, when it lasts for more than 3 months.”

Don’t Ignore Chronic Pain

Before thinking of ignoring chronic pain and foregoing treatment, consider its warning signs to inform your decision-making. Common symptoms include mild to severe pain that doesn’t pass as expected following an illness or injury. People with chronic pain often describe it in colorful terms: aching, burning, electrical, or shooting. It may also be paired with soreness, tightness, and stiffness in the affected limb or elsewhere on your body.

One of the consequences of ignoring chronic pain rather than seeking treatment is that it can affect your quality of life at home, work, or school. Socializing and maintaining relationships become difficult, often driving someone to self-isolate and even stop doing the things they used to enjoy. 

Chronic pain conditions often have a psychological component and can lead to other problems, like depression, anxiety, and stress. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), up to 85% of people with chronic pain are also diagnosed with severe depression. That alone is a reason not to ignore your pain symptoms.

Know the Symptoms

Chronic pain symptoms shouldn’t be ignored. You’re not going to get the Person of the Year Award for betting against potential treatment options like physical or occupational therapy, pain medicine, or ketamine therapy. Instead, deciding not to get treatment could lead to an entire range of other problems:

  • Sleep problems or insomnia
  • Negative impact on cognitive processes and brain functionality
  • Overall mental health declines, including significant mood swings
  • Constant fatigue
  • Heart health deteriorates
  • Overall quality of life worsens

Deciding not to treat chronic pain could also have financial consequences. If your pain is too severe to work, you can miss work, be less productive while at work, or even lose your job. All these things add up, with the NIH estimating the overall financial burden of chronic pain to be more than $500 billion a year – more than the combined cost of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Possible Causes of Chronic Pain

By its very nature, chronic pain is mysterious and sometimes untraceable. If you have frequent pain symptoms, it’s only natural to wonder about the source. Were you injured and forgot about it? Did you have surgery or another procedure that has triggered the pain? Even if you don’t have the answers, there are educated guesses about possible causes. Many of these can inform your treatment decisions and relieve your doubts. 

Probable causes:

  • Injuries to bones, joints, or muscle strain
  • Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 15 million people with arthritis also report chronic pain symptoms.
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Injuries to or pressure on nerves, or problems with your central nervous system
  • Diabetes
  • Shingles
  • Sciatica
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In one government study, 38% of respondents said they had IBD and chronic pain.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome or other gastrointestinal trouble
  • Pelvic pain
  • Stomach ulcers.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Now that you know what might happen if your chronic pain isn’t treated, what happens next? You should probably see a healthcare provider for diagnosis and to learn about treatment options. During a physical checkup, your clinician will ask you to describe the pain (severity, frequency, where it happens, potential triggers), provide details on personal and family medical history, and look for an underlying condition that may cause the pain. If there’s a medical cause, like a broken bone that didn’t heal properly or an illness, it may be treatable. No single test can diagnose chronic pain, but blood tests, imaging scans, and other procedures may shed light on what’s happening.

Final Thoughts

Chronic pain can affect all facets of your life, so a healthcare provider may recommend an integrated treatment approach. This could include the expertise of different healthcare professionals, and result in the use of counseling, pain medicine, or ketamine therapy to relieve symptoms and allow you to live a fulfilling life.

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