Understanding Your Pain to Get the Best Relief

According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, 100 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. Pain is listed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the leading cause of disability and the most common reason people access the health care system. Roughly one-quarter of all Americans were suffering from pain lasting more than 24 hours as of 2006.

From acute injuries to lifelong illnesses, pain can be a symptom of a variety of problems. Sometimes pain seems to appear on its own with no apparent underlying cause. No matter why you’re hurting, you want fast and lasting relief to help you get back to daily life.

Understanding your condition is the key to finding proper treatment. These five common causes of pain may be addressed with both medical and alternative treatments. Your doctor can explain your options and aid you in determining the best approach.


Fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain and is often accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Although no definitive cause has been determined, the Mayo Clinic explains it may be related to how your brain handles pain signals from your body.

Some people begin to experience symptoms following a stressful event, such as physical trauma, psychological distress or surgery. It’s also possible for symptoms to develop and worsen over time with no known starting point. People with fibromyalgia may be misdiagnosed or even ignored because of the persistent myth that the problem is completely psychological. However, this painful condition is beginning to be recognized as a disease in its own right, and has a variety of treatment options tied to it.

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Medications and supplements for fibromyalgia include:

  • Pain relievers
  • Sleep aids
  • Antidepressants
  • Anticonvulsants
  • John’s wort
  • 5-HTP
  • SAMe
  • Melatonin

In some cases, symptoms may be the result of a vitamin D deficiency and resolve with proper supplementation. Many people also find relief through strength training and aerobic exercise, yoga, tai chi, stress reduction techniques, massage and acupuncture.


Your sciatic nerves extend from your lumbar spine to your feet on either side of your body, passing through your buttocks on the way. As your largest nerves, they serve as connections between your spine, legs and feet.

Pain originating in the sciatic nerve is referred to as sciatica and may be felt in your buttocks or down the back of your leg. You may experience numbness, weakness or difficulty moving or flexing your feet. Sciatica can be caused by a herniated disk or bone spur putting pressure on the nerve and can also be a symptom of degenerative disk disease, piriformis syndrome or sacroiliac joint dysfunction. Some people suffer from sciatic nerve pain following sports injuries or during pregnancy.

To treat sciatica, your doctor may prescribe:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Antidepressants or anti-seizure medications
  • Steroid injections
  • Physical therapy

Severely herniated discs and some bone spurs may require surgery to remove the cause of the pain.

You can also manage sciatica on your own with:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Gentle stretching
  • Chiropractic treatments
  • Hot and cold packs

Even though the condition is uncomfortable, it’s important to stay mobile. Prolonged periods of sitting or lying down can make sciatica worse.

Nerve Damage and Pain

Also called neuropathy, pain relating to any of the nerves in your body can be debilitating. Symptoms include a pins-and-needs feeling, burning sensation, loss of feeling, and diminished function of the affected area. These sensations may result from the body misinterpreting pain signals from the nerves or the nerves sending false messages to the brain.

Neuropathy can result from several conditions, including:

  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Diabetes
  • Genetic disorders
  • Tumors
  • Viral or bacterial infections
  • Vitamin deficiencies

You should always seek a doctor’s help when experiencing this kind of pain. Untreated neuropathy may progress and lead to problems with vital bodily functions, such as blood pressure regulation and bladder control. Your doctor will likely run tests to determine the underlying cause of the pain and may give you pain medication, anti-epileptic drugs or antidepressants to help control symptoms.

Over-the-counter topical pain creams can help minimize nerve pain, as can alternative treatments like massage and acupuncture. Staying active and managing your stress reduces tension, and a targeted physical therapy regimen may also improve the condition.

Back Pain

If you’ve been to the doctor, missed work or suffered from disability at some point in your life, chances are back pain was part of the reason. Lower back pain is especially common and may be caused by injuries, bulging or ruptured spinal discs, poor posture, arthritis, osteoporosis or severe scoliosis.

When your back hurts, you might describe the pain as throbbing, shooting or stabbing. Your legs may also be affected, and you’re likely to experience difficulty with movement and flexibility in your back. If you’re suffering from any of these symptoms and your quality of life is diminished as a result, your doctor may suggest:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Topical analgesic creams or ointments
  • Prescription pain medications
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Cortisone injections

Some types of back pain can be treated without medical intervention. Correcting your posture while sitting and standing, performing gentle stretches and changing your sleeping position can all result in improvement if done correctly. Massage and hot or cold packs offer temporary relief from acute pain.

A weak core can also be responsible for back pain. Exercises to strengthen both abdominal and back muscles help you stand straighter and minimize the risk of injury when bending or lifting.

Chronic Pain

Defined as pain lasting more than three months, chronic pain is associated with many conditions. The American Chronic Pain Association provides a comprehensive list on their website to help you learn more about your condition if you’re one of the millions of Americans suffering from ongoing pain.

Even if your discomfort doesn’t seem to have a definite source, it could be the result of an undiagnosed illness or an injury you don’t remember sustaining. It’s important to discuss your symptoms with a doctor so that he or she can determine the origin.

Treatment for chronic pain is similar to the recommendations for other types of pain. Over-the-counter or prescription painkillers are often used, as are antidepressants, anticonvulsants and muscle relaxants. Newer types of treatment, including trigger point injections and nerve root blocks, are also being administered. If you struggle with concomitant symptoms like insomnia, depression or anxiety, your doctor may address these problems with additional medications.

Several alternative treatments may also help ease chronic pain:

  • Active exercise therapy
  • Anti-inflammatory diet
  • Heat therapy
  • Massage
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • TENS units
  • Turmeric

When you know what type of pain you’re suffering from, you can find the best treatment to manage or cure the condition. Work with your doctor to get a proper diagnosis and set up a plan for relief.

Having a support system is a vital part of a pain management plan. Find a local group for people living with the same condition, get involved with your church or spend time with supportive friends and family members. Having both a medical and personal team makes it easier to overcome the challenges associated with painful conditions.