When pain just won’t go away, the medical term for it is chronic pain. There are many possible causes, from a prior injury or illness, to something less obvious, such as psychological stress.

Chronic pain is a common, but fortunately, there are many available treatment options to help you manage your pain more effectively.

Keep reading to learn more about chronic pain, including the symptoms, causes, and what you can do to combat it.

What is chronic pain (definition)?

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts longer than three months1, or beyond the normal amount of time it generally takes to heal (from an injury).

But why does this happen? When you have an injury, the nervous system sends pain signals from the site of the pain. When it comes to chronic pain, pain signals in the nervous system2 continue to fire beyond the time of injury.

In severe cases, long-term pain may even contribute to the reorganization of brain structures and neural pathways. It may reduce control of motor functions,3 and reduce the volume of gray matter in the brain.4 Grey matter is a component of the brain, associated with learning, memory processing, and attention span.

What Causes Chronic Pain?

As chronic pain can occur anywhere in the body, the causes of chronic pain are numerous and varied.

Below, are a few of the most common conditions and risk factors that may cause chronic pain:

Injury and or Surgery

Having a prior injury—particularly an injury involving two or more rib fractures, sternal fractures, mild traumatic brain injury, or spinal cord injury5 —can be a major predictor of chronic pain.

Injuries sustained as a result of repetitive stress, such as constant typing on the keyboard, or working on an assembly line, can also make you more prone to chronic pain in your muscles and joints. 22

Patients who’ve had surgery to repair an injury may also report experiencing chronic pain, persisting long after their post-op recovery period.

Sleep habits

A variety of factors related to sleep could also cause chronic pain.

What are the causes of joint and muscle pain?

For example, sleeping on a mattress that is too hard or too soft6 may cause stiff or sore muscles in the upper or lower back.

Sleeping on a pillow that is “dead,” or one that does not support the weight of your head, can cause pain in the nape of the neck7, the shoulders, or the upper back as well.


Arthritis is an inflammatory condition that causes the joints to swell. This can cause chronic pain, as well as stiffness of the joints, which is the area where two bones meet.22

There are hundreds of types of arthritis, but two of the most common types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. 22

Being Overweight or Obese

Being overweight or obese is also a risk factor for developing chronic pain.8 Excess weight places increased stress on the body’s weight-bearing joints9 This includes the lower spine, knees, hips, tibia, and ankles.

With increased strain, comes faster wear and tear of these joints, leading to a risk of developing chronic pain.

Obesity may also be associated with the incidence of osteoarthritis.10 This is a condition that causes joints to be stiff and can also lead to chronic pain.

Your Complete Guide to Arthritis Joint Pain

Psychological factors

Chronic pain can also be the cause of a combination of mental health factors. This includes anxiety, depression, and stress.

Prolonged negative mental and emotional states can manifest physically in the body as pain (psychosomatic or psychogenic pain11), ailment, or disease.

Symptoms of Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can occur anywhere in the body. Some of the more common areas where it occurs are the head, back, neck, shoulders, knees and other joints.12

Common symptoms of chronic pain13 include:

  • Sharp pain: This is when pain feels sharp, like a stabbing, or burning sensation.
  • Muscle ache: This is a continuous, steady and dull pain in the muscle or joint.
  • Muscle stiffness: Long-term, repetitive stress or trauma to the body can cause injury and result in chronic pain and stiffness.
  • Reduced flexibility and range of motion: Severe pain and other symptoms of chronic pain, such as stiff muscles, may discourage movement, impacting flexibility and range of motion.
  • Pain that persists: Chronic pain describes recurring pain or pain that persists, even after recovering from an injury or illness that initially caused the pain.

If you have any questions or concerns about your chronic pain condition, don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider for a chronic pain diagnosis and treatment option.

How is Chronic Pain Diagnosed?

It is helpful to pay attention to where, when, and how often you’re experiencing pain. Noticing actions or movements that exacerbate or reduce your pain can also be useful when getting a chronic pain diagnosis.

Chronic pain is a common pain condition, that could be a standalone symptom, or the result an underlying health condition.14

A doctor may use the following tools to better understand what the root cause of your pain is:

  • physical examination
  • medical history
  • X-Rays or MRI
  • urine test
  • blood test
  • muscle function test
  • nerve conduction test

Treatment for Chronic Pain

Below are common chronic pain syndrome treatments to manage pain effectively.

Heat or Cold Therapy for Pain Management

Should I use heat or ice on muscle pain?

Heat and cold therapy are excellent treatments for pain management, especially for muscular pain.

What is cold therapy and is it good for me?

For chronic pain, cold therapy can help reduce pain perception by slowing down (and desensitizing) nerve activity, and increasing pain threshold and tolerance.15 Essentially, cold therapy provides chronic pain relief by numbing the pain.

Heat therapy helps promote blood circulation and loosens stiff muscles and joints that may be causing chronic pain.23

OTC Pain Relief Products

Topical pain relief products or OTC pain relievers and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory may also help in the short term.

Take Breaks Often

Chronic pain can simply be caused by lifestyle factors, and so pain relief can also be as simple as adjusting some of your daily practices.

If you sit and work at your desk all day, make sure you take breaks often to get up, stretch, and move around. This forces you to reset any bad posture, as well as alleviate the constant pressure on your lumbar spine and lower back.

Check out our guide here for more tips on how to find lower back pain relief.

7 Ways to Find Lower Back Pain Relief

Avoid Smoking

Smoking not only increases your risk of developing cancer and/or lung disease. It also increases your risk of developing chronic pain.

Research has found that smokers have higher rates of chronic pain16, and their level of pain is more intense than non-smokers.

Quitting or avoiding smoking may help alleviate some of the common symptoms of chronic pain.