You might have heard that chronic pain can be managed, but not cured. As science has developed, we have now learnt that’s not the case. While pain management is a big part of living with a chronic pain condition, there are lots of effective treatments which can reduce chronic pain symptoms and even help an individual overcome their chronic pain.
So can chronic pain be cured? In essence the simple answer is yes, but things are a lot more complicated than that. Let’s jump in and take a look.
Chronic Doesn’t Mean Forever
A lot of pain patients (like me until I learnt about pain science), are under the impression that chronic means their pain will last forever. The definition of chronic in relation to health is: “lasting a long time. A chronic condition is one that lasts 3 months or more.” It tells us right there in the meaning of the word that chronic pain is long lasting, but it doesn’t mean it has to last forever.
Lack of Hope From Doctors
Often the impression that chronic pain can’t be treated comes from medical professionals. Unfortunately chronic pain training and education for medical professionals is, in general, lacking: they might not be aware that there are scientifically proven methods to help patients regain their quality of life. Therefore, they don’t pass them on to us.
It’s a common experience among pain patients to be told that they’ll need to stay positive and just live with their pain. This is exactly what happened to me when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia! We might be given ways that we can try to self-manage our pain, but it’s rare to be referred for treatments which can actually reduce our symptoms.
This means that many of us leave our doctor’s office feeling hopeless about our future. This feeds into the pain cycle by perpetuating negative pain beliefs, contributing to stress and leaving us with no guidance.
Giving chronic pain patients hope can be extremely powerful. We all want to get our life back! None of us want to live in pain! When we know there’s a chance to improve things, we’re more likely to seek treatment and actively engage in it, as well as proactively self-manage our symptoms.
You might have had people suggest all sorts of ‘magical cures’ for your chronic pain. I think a lot of us who live with chronic pain have experienced people suggesting that if we just eat this type of food; if we do this specific exercise; or if we try this one magic medicine, our chronic pain will be cured.
This can understandably make you feel really skeptical about the concept that you can recover from chronic pain. However, once you understand the science behind treatments for chronic pain, it becomes a lot easier to regain that sense of hope.
The Brain Can Be Trained Away From Pain
We’ve mentioned that there are treatments which can help us overcome our chronic pain, but how is this possible? Let’s start with how pain is created.
Pain is an output
It’s important to understand that pain is an output: the brain assesses what’s happening in our environment taking hundreds of factors into account, and if it feels there’s a threat, the brain creates the pain experience.
The body doesn’t tell the brain what hurts and how much. It simply sends messages to the brain. It’s then up to the brain to interpret this information and decide if pain will protect you. All pain is created in the brain, both acute and chronic.
The brain learns to keep producing pain
As we grow up and go through different things in our life, our brain learns from these experiences. As it learns, it changes and adjusts: you’ll hear the brain’s ability to change referred to as neuroplasticity. However, the brain doesn’t always learn the right lessons. The brain can learn to continue producing pain, adapting to perpetuate these pain pathways. Essentially the brain becomes too good at producing pain and the nervous system becomes overactive: you’ll hear this referred to as central sensitization.
You can think of this like a faulty alarm system. With acute pain, the alarm system is helpful: it warns you when there’s a problem. However when pain becomes chronic, the alarm system is faulty. It’s sending out pain messages even when there’s no threat! It’s as though the volume on your nervous system is ‘turned up’, detecting threats where there are none.
Pain doesn’t equal damage
Now that you know that pain is created in the brain, you can see that you can experience chronic pain without physical damage! Damage can be present in the body without pain, and chronic pain can be present even where there is no damage. Many people don’t know they have damage in certain areas of their body until they get a scan for something else, because there’s no pain.
A great example of pain not equalling damage is phantom limb pain: the patient has pain in a limb which no longer exists! Another good example is the fact that chronic pain moves around and varies from day to day: if you’re a chronic pain patient you’ll likely have experienced this yourself. If chronic pain stemmed from physical damage, it would be in the same place consistently.
Of course everyone is different and every chronic pain condition is different. For some, there may be damage, but it’s vital to understand that chronic pain itself doesn’t stem from damage, it can exist without it! Realising this was a turning point for me. Fear melted away as I realised that even if it hurt, it wasn’t actually ‘hurting’ me.
Retraining the brain
So what does all of this mean for our big question. Well, if the brain can learn to produce chronic pain, it can also learn to stop producing pain! We can calm our overactive alarm system! The fact that chronic pain doesn’t equal damage means that we can challenge our pain without worrying about ‘hurting’ ourselves.
There are lots of scientifically proven treatments which can help us to retrain our brain away from pain. There are also plenty of ways we can actively work towards this goal outside of treatment. Essentially we’re teaching our brain that it doesn’t need to produce pain messages anymore!
This article from the Integrative Pain Science Institute explains that, “You literally have the power to change pain sensations in your body by changing your thoughts and consciously rewiring your brain. Less pain is possible.”
Recovery Is Different For Everyone
Since retraining your brain is possible, then in theory chronic pain can be cured. However, it’s not as simple as that. There’s no quick cure or one solution. Some treatments might work for one person, and not for another. It’s about finding what works for you.
Fundamentally, it can be a long and complex journey to try to retrain your brain and overcome your pain, and there are many factors to take into account. It’s an ongoing commitment with techniques you have to learn and keep using in the long term.
Recovery can mean different things for everyone. For some, treatment will allow them to regain their functioning a little bit and reduce some of their symptoms: this can make a huge difference to quality of life.
For others, they might be able to significantly reduce their symptoms to the point that they are able to regain most of their functioning and manage their remaining pain. Some people will be able to overcome their chronic pain completely and be pain free.
Real Life Examples
You might think this is all good in theory, but has anyone managed to actually overcome their chronic pain in ‘real life’. The answer is yes: lots of people have! Our founder Sandip overcame years of debilitating chronic pain stemming from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI): he’s now completely pain free. Dr Micheal Moskowitz overcame 13 years of chronic pain and is now pain free.
I have my own recovery story. After years of living with fibromyalgia and arthritis, and having very little functioning, I’m now at a point where my pain is well managed and I’ve regained a lot of my functioning. You can read more recovery stories here:
- Train Your Brain Away From Chronic Pain Guide
- Climbing the Mountain of Chronic Pain
- Navigating Neuropathy: A Chronic Pain Success Story
- Chronic Pain Recovery Stories from 20 years Experience
There are lots of people with recovery stories out there. It’s not just a fairytale: it is real and it is possible.
How To Start Your Recovery Journey
Hopefully this article has given you hope that it is possible to overcome your chronic pain and find ways to reclaim your life. We’ll now cover the practical aspects to guide you through how to start your recovery journey.
The first step is seeking treatment for your chronic pain. There are lots of ways you can do this. You can choose to go to your doctor and advocate for appropriate chronic pain treatment. You can do this by being knowledgeable, firm, calm and persistent.
You could choose to seek treatment privately: this might be costly but if your resources allow, it can be a way to get treatment quickly and on your own terms. Another, more cost effective option, is to use a chronic pain treatment program like Pathways. You can get treatment in your own home and in your own time.
It can feel scary at first to reach out for help. You might be skeptical, especially if you’ve had bad experiences in the past with medical professionals. That’s understandable, but it’s important that you do reach out so that you start improving your life.
There are lots of available, scientifically proven treatments which can help you to retrain your brain. These include:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT works to replace negative thinking patterns and behaviours with more helpful ones.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT teaches you that negative thoughts don’t need to lead to actions, and helps you commit to more positive behaviours.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness helps you to release stress and relax, actively breaking the stress and pain cycle.
- Graded Motor Imagery (GMI): GMI uses the brain’s neuroplasticity and visualized movements to retrain the brain, building up to physically performing the movements without pain.
These are just a few of the treatments available. You can find out all you need to know about retraining your brain in our guide.
Self-management is a vital part of a chronic pain recovery journey. This includes attending all of your appointments; being proactive with your treatment; and continuing to use therapy techniques between therapy sessions and after they’ve ended. It also includes management techniques such as:
- Keeping a regular sleep routine
- Eating well
- Doing regular exercise
- Pacing your activity
- Finding purpose and setting goals
- Maintaining social connections
These are just a few self-management strategies you can use to aid you in your recovery journey. You can read about all of your pain self-help options in our comprehensive guide.
The Future of Chronic Pain Treatment
As scientists learn more about chronic pain and as technology advances, so does chronic pain treatment. We’re already making strides in the right direction. The future looks increasingly bright for those with chronic pain.
As more is understood about neuroplasticity and the mind body connection, treatments to retrain the brain away from pain will come to the forefront of chronic pain treatment. Lynn Kohan, MD explains that professionals are, “beginning to have a better understanding of pain pathways and pain-related targets, and thus are able to develop medications and techniques to help alleviate pain with reduced side effects.”
Other treatments such as gene therapy; virtual reality to retrain the brain; and nerve stimulation to block chronic pain are all in development. These treatments could be promising for pain patients.
Tina L. Doshi, MD, MHS from the Division of Pain Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, aptly concludes things for us, stating that, “Pain is not just an unfortunate consequence of some other pathology; pain is the pathology, and there is now greater awareness that pain management needs to be just as comprehensive, coordinated, and customized as treatment for hypertension, diabetes, or cancer.”
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, (2018), “Medical Definition of Chronic”. Medicine Net.
Integrative Pain Science Institute, (2018), “Here’s how the brain creates pain – and how to stop it”.
PPM Editorial Board, (2019), “The Future of Pain Management: An Experts’ Roundtable”. Practical Pain Management, Volume 19, Issue 1, Pages 25-33.
ZME Science, (2019), “The future of pain management beyond painkillers: new lines of research to keep an eye on”.