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Chronic Pain: Introduction to a Wider Approach

September 2, 2013

DisclaimerAcute pain may be defined as intense pain of recent onset that usually diminishes and disappears when healing has taken place.  Acute pain is a symptom of some underlying disease or injury.  Chronic pain is that which is ongoing and defies simple causal analysis.  It may be diagnosed in general terms and defies mere biological factors or pharmaceutical therapies.  Chronic pain will be the subject of this blog series.

Saint Augustine once wrote, “Although there may be life without pain, there cannot be pain without some kind of life” (City of God, Book XIX, Chapter 13), but that offers little consolation to the more than 1.5 billion people worldwide who suffer from chronic pain according to a 2011 market research report. The Church prays for the health and relief of those who are in pain and distress. Christ Himself had a boundless compassion on the suffering and healed multitudes of the ill and infirm. And yet many waited years on end for the Savior’s touch, suffering patiently like Job or not so patiently like his wife, but suffering all the same. People with chronic pain suffer and wait in pain seeking some relief from any direction. They may turn to medications, chiropractors, and surgery for some help, and they are certainly right to do so. But there are other possibilities for assistance that can be found in such unlikely places as cognitive therapy and such traditional resources as the Christian faith. This new series of blog posts intends to explore approaches that look at the problem from another vantage point and offer some further suggestions for possibilities that the sufferer may not have considered.

First of all, though, some definitions are in order. The American Academy of Pain Medicine notes, “While acute pain is a normal sensation triggered in the nervous system to alert you to possible injury and the need to take care of yourself, chronic pain is different. Chronic pain persists. Pain signals keep firing in the nervous system for weeks, months, even years. There may have been an initial mishap—sprained back, serious infection, or there may be an ongoing cause of pain—arthritis, cancer, ear infection, but some people suffer chronic pain in the absence of any past injury or evidence of body damage. Many chronic pain conditions affect older adults. Common chronic pain complaints include headache, low back pain, cancer pain, arthritis pain, neurogenic pain (pain resulting from damage to the peripheral nerves or to the central nervous system itself).”

Chronic pain has been associated with depression, low self-esteem, anger, feelings of helplessness, and addiction. These secondary, very real problems also require attention, for they feed into chronic pain and further exacerbate it. Their presence also indicate that the problem is not only physical or neurological, but also a problem for the psyche, which for the fathers means a problem for the soul. This is also why chronic pain defies easy answers or quick medical interventions attempting to lower physiological symptoms, but failing to treat the entire person.  Those who’ve studied and treated this issue suggest that a holistic approach may provide understanding, if not total relief, for those suffering with chronic pain.

In this series of blog posts, I will examine this holistic approach which considers the physical, social, cognitive, and emotional factors related to chronic pain as well as the often ignored spiritual dimension of this problem. In other words, beyond medical interventions, relationships with others, our ways of thinking about pain, our reactions to pain, our emotions with respect to pain, and our faith in God can all play a role. Saint Augustine once wrote, “Then there is the great struggle with pain. But there is nothing, though of iron hardness, which the fire of love cannot subdue. And when the mind is carried up to God in this love, it will soar above all torture free and glorious, with wings beauteous and unhurt, on which chaste love rises to the embrace of God” (On the Morals of the Catholic Church, chapter 22). Certainly, faith in God through which the martyrs passed through their suffering and pain can also help those suffering with chronic pain as well.

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