Pain is a general term and a common symptom. Everyone experiences pain throughout life, but the causes of pain and the severity of pain that you feel varies greatly. While pain doesn’t always require medical treatment, it’s important to know when to talk to your doctor about the pain that you feel.
What is pain?
Pain is signal that is produced by the brain. While pain is an uncomfortable feeling, it serves an important purpose. Pain lets the body know that something is wrong, and there’s a threat.
That signal lets you know to drop the hot iron, or that it’s time to talk to your doctor. It can result from bumping into a coffee table, or it can indicate a serious underlying health problem.
Sometimes pain is mild and irritating, and sometimes it’s severe and debilitating. It can cause different sensations — burning, aching, throbbing, stabbing, numbing, searing, etc. — and people have different tolerances for pain.
Pain can be accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, and irritability.
Acute pain typically comes on suddenly and goes away after a short amount of time. You may know what causes the pain — a stubbed toe or a sports injury — or maybe the cause of the pain is unknown. Acute pain can become chronic pain.
Chronic pain is present for an extended period of time. It can be difficult to identify the cause of chronic pain, and it may result from a disease or condition that requires treatment.
Living with chronic pain
People can grow accustomed to chronic pain. Maybe they deal with recurring pain from an old injury that frequently comes and goes. Some just accept back pain or shoulder pain as a normal part of life. Many manage chronic pain by taking over-the-counter pain relievers every day.
Delaying treatment for chronic pain can be dangerous, however. Pain may indicate a serious underlying condition; the longer that the condition goes without a diagnosis, the more difficult it can be to treat. For example, arthritis is a degenerative condition that gets progressively worse over time.
Chronic pain typically requires some type of treatment. In some cases, the cause of chronic pain can be identified and treated. Often, the best way to treat chronic pain is by managing the symptoms.
Treating pain depends on what causes the pain. Talking to your doctor is the best way to determine how to treat your pain.
When should you talk to a doctor about pain?
Most people know when they are in pain. Identifying pain is the easy part; knowing when to talk to a doctor about pain is where people tend to struggle.
There are several reasons why people avoid seeking medical care in general — inconvenience, cost, fear, or maybe they think that they don’t need treatment.
Sometimes pain is acute and it goes away on its own. Maybe you know what caused your pain, and you expect the pain to go away without medical treatment.
If you choose not to talk to your doctor about pain immediately, start documenting your symptoms. When does the pain start? What types of treatment (ice, rest, elevation, etc.) make it feel better? Is the pain getting better or worse? Keeping track of your pain helps you know when to talk to a doctor, and it helps you communicate your symptoms.
Talk to a doctor about your pain if:
- You experience intense or severe pain.
- Your pain does not go away or get better after a few days.
- The pain worsens.
- You think that you need stitches, your injury is infected, or you have broken a bone.
- The pain is in your chest.
- You experience chronic pain that persists for months or years.
- The pain interferes with sleep, it affects your mood, or if it disrupts daily life.
- You rely on over-the-counter pain relievers.
While over-the-counter medicine can be used to manage acute pain, do not take opioids or any prescription pain relievers that have not been prescribed to you. Opioids are often used to treat pain, and they are effective. However, opioids are also highly addictive. The more someone uses opioids, the higher the risk for opioids addiction and overdose.