If it hurts to get out of bed each day, you are not alone. More than 100 million Americans, many of them older adults, suffer from chronic pain. The pain can range from causing mild discomfort to being severely debilitating.
"Chronic pain is any pain or discomfort that is occurring for more than 12 weeks," says Dr. Liza Leal, a Houston-based physician who specializes in treating chronic pain. "It can be intermittent or it can be continuous."
Leal, author of "Live Well with Chronic Pain" (Waterside Publications, $16), knows firsthand how chronic pain can affect someone's life. In 1994, she began to feel constant and excruciating pain. "I was a third-year medical student when I had difficulty standing up to walk and I thought it was just a 48-hour shift" causing the pain, she says. But she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and soon found herself needing a wheelchair. Leal completed medical school, and with therapy, treatment and exercise was able to walk again. But while her disease is in remission, she still copes with pain.
What makes chronic pain so difficult to treat is it is different for each person and often the causes aren't clear. For some patients, over-the-counter painkillers may provide temporary relief. Others may need more powerful prescription drugs. In her book, Leal cites the Mankoski Pain Scale, a commonly used measurement where patients describe the pain they are feeling. The scale ranges from 0 (pain free) to 10 (pain so intense it causes unconsciousness).
"In chronic pain, you're usually between a four and a seven," Leal says. Four is described as a constant and noticeable discomfort but it can be temporarily ignored if you're concentrating on work or other tasks. If you're a seven, however, you may find it difficult to concentrate although you can still function. Leal says patients must avoid falling into the "victim trap" and wallowing in self-pity. "If you're a four, you do not complain," she says. "You have to learn that there is a level of discomfort you're going to have." You can access the Mankoski Pain Scale at nwsdy.li/painscale.
Leal says patients do better when they find mental and social outlets to distract them. "Get your mind busy, whether it's with grandchildren or planning dinner for your family," she says. "If you're sitting at home thinking, 'My pain is going to be bad today,' your expectation is that it's going to be bad. And it will be bad."
The National Institute on Aging has information on dealing with chronic pain at nwsdy.li/niapain.