Causes of Chronic Pain

The word chronic comes from the Greek khronikos, of time, and refers to something lasting for a long period of time, or recurring frequently over time. Chronic pain is often the result of an underlying chronic medical condition, such as arthritis (which causes chronic pain in the joints), or fibromyalgia (which causes chronic pain in the muscles).

Occasionally, chronic pain is the result of an accident, disease, or surgery that may itself be of short duration, but that damages nerves or spinal cord pathways that are responsible for transmitting pain signals so that they keep on sending those signals indefinitely. This type of nerve pain that persists after the original injury heals is called neuropathic — meaning the damaged nerve, not the original injury, is causing the pain.

There are many reasons why these damaged nerves sometimes misfire and send wrong messages. One reason is that when a nerve cell is destroyed, the severed end of the surviving fiber can sprout a snarl of unorganized nerve fibers called a neuroma. This bundle of nerve tissue then starts sending warnings of injuries that don't exist.

For some people, the cause of chronic pain is unknown. There isn't any evidence of disease or damage to body tissues that doctors can link to the pain. Sometimes, this may simply mean that the person is suffering from a condition that has not yet been identified by medical science, so that the physicians have not yet discovered the signs to look for.

In other cases, the person may have psychogenic pain, which means pain that is presumed to originate from psychological causes (such as a traumatic experience). It's important to understand that this kind of pain should not be dismissed as "just all in the person's head" — the experience of pain is all too real to the person suffering it, and just as disabling as if an organic cause had been identified.