Saying that 'pain is real' may seem like a painfully obvious statement (pardon the pun), but people with chronic back pain or neck pain are often treated as if their pain is actually made up or greatly exaggerated.
In truth, chronic pain often is caused by misfires in the nerve pathways or other anatomical problems that are difficult or impossible to diagnose using standard medical testing.
Fortunately, the medical community is now starting to establish and accept that pain cannot be diagnosed like other medical problems (such as a broken bone that can be diagnosed by an X-ray) and needs to be treated and managed differently.
Pain is a unique, personal experience that needs to be treated. Everyone experiences and expresses pain differently. Two people with the exact same back problem will often feel and show their pain in unique ways depending on a number of factors. The newest theories of pain can now explain, on a physiological level, how and why people experience pain differently.
This is especially true for spinal problems, where it is not uncommon that no objective evidence or physical findings explain the patient's painful symptoms. Fortunately, the medical community is now starting to understand that even if pain is not traceable to an underlying problem, the pain is still experienced and therefore needs to be treated as the primary pathology.
Chronic pain is different from acute pain
Chronic pain does not serve a biologic or protective function like acute pain does.
With acute pain, the severity of pain directly correlates to the amount of damage, thus providing you with a protective reflex (e.g. to immediately remove your hand if you touch a hot iron). Acute pain is a symptom of injured or diseased tissue, and your pain goes away when the injury heals.
With chronic pain, the pain does not serve a protective or other biological function. Instead, even though there is no tissue damage, the nerves just continue to send pain signals to your brain.
If back pain moves from acute to chronic, factors other than tissue damage and injury come more into play. These include ongoing "pain" signals in the nervous system even though there is no tissue damage, as well as thoughts and emotions.
Additional health conditions can develop as a result of unmanaged chronic pain. At times chronic pain has a snowball effect, with additional symptoms piling on as the pain wears on. Two frequent co-existing symptoms are depression and insomnia.
Pain can lead to sleep problems, which lead to more pain
Patients with chronic back pain may also sleep poorly, which exacerbates the pain problem. Sleep disorders should be treated in conjunction with the underlying cause of the back pain-not in isolation from it. Read about effective treatment techniques in Breaking the cycle of chronic pain and insomnia.