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What Is Chronic Pain?

Understanding Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is pain that lasts three to six months or longer, or extends beyond an expected recovery period. It is often the result of an illness or injury.

Pain is the body’s natural response to harm. It occurs when receptors at the end of your nerves, called nociceptors, are turned on because of an illness, injury or chemical changes within the body. When a nociceptor is turned on, a signal travels through the spinal cord to the brain, which recognizes the signal as pain.

If you suffer from pain, you are not alone. Chronic pain affects one in four adults over age 40 in the U.S. and one in four adults over age 25 in the European Union.1,2 Unlike most other illnesses, however, chronic pain is largely misunderstood and undertreated.

Types of chronic pain

Chronic pain can be one of two types: nociceptive or neuropathic. Each type of pain feels different, has different causes and may be relieved by different types of pain management options.

Nociceptive pain 

Nociceptive pain is caused when special nerve endings—called nociceptors—are irritated. It is the type of pain you feel when you burn yourself, twist your ankle or stub your toe. It is a dull or sharp aching pain that ranges from mild to severe.

Nociceptive pain usually can be controlled. It is often temporary, such as when you have a sprained ankle, but it can also be a chronic condition. Cancer pain and arthritis pain are common types of chronic nociceptive pain. Nociceptive pain usually responds well to pain medications, anti-inflammatory agents or other drug therapies.

Neuropathic pain 

Neuropathic pain is caused by a malfunction of the nervous system due to an injury or illness. It can be a sharp, intense, shocking or shooting pain. It can be a very stubborn type of pain because it does not usually respond well to standard pain treatments, such as over-the-counter pain medications (for example, aspirin or ibuprofen) or prescription pain medications. 

Neuropathic pain may be managed by a therapy called neurostimulation. Patients with neuropathic pain in the back, arms or legs or pain that comes from failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS) or post-laminectomy syndrome are sometimes prescribed spinal cord stimulation (SCS) therapy to help manage their chronic pain. 

For patients with pain that is limited to a specific area of the body, dorsal root ganglion (DRG) stimulation may work where other therapies have not—or may have only provided partial relief. This sort of isolated chronic pain may start in a lower extremity (foot, knee, hip and groin) following an injury or surgical procedure and grow worse over time. 

Evaluating your chronic pain

Chronic pain affects people differently. It is important to talk with your doctor or pain specialist about your symptoms, how long you have been experiencing pain and how it affects your life.

Before you see a doctor, you may find it helpful to print and fill out a chronic pain assessment. Learn more about talking with your doctor about chronic pain.


1. Leadley, R. M., Armstrong, N., Lee, Y. C., Allen, A., & Kleijnen, J. (2012). Chronic diseases in the European Union: The prevalence and health cost implications of chronic pain. Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy, 26(4), 310-325.
2. Kennedy, J., Roll, J. M., Schraudner, T., Murphy, S., & McPherson, S. (2014). Prevalence of persistent pain in the U.S. adult population: New data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey. The Journal of Pain: Official Journal of the America Pain Society, 15(10), 979-984.