Chronic Pain: Living With Pain (cont.)

Unfortunately, the answers don't come so readily, for there could be several reasons for the same affliction; there is no one way to identify and measure the physical distress; and there is no magic bullet for treatment.

The good news is that doctors are now paying more attention to the issue of pain and, as a result, there are more ways than ever to tackle the problem.

Yet in the near future looms a darker picture: aging baby boomers are expected to ache for quick fixes, faster than the medical establishment can possibly provide.

Nevertheless, the optimistic search for reasons and relief continues.

Defining Pain

Many doctors define chronic pain as a physical distress that persists at least six months. The pain specialists interviewed by WebMD listed back, neck, head, and musculoskeletal pain as the most common. The relentless misery is also known to plague people with certain diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, and fibromyalgia (which is marked by widespread aches, fatigue, and multiple tender points).

According to Small's specialist, Sanford Silverman, MD, of Comprehensive Pain Medicine in Pampano Beach, Fla., pain is the body's way of warning against greater injury (such as a sore thumb when hit by a hammer), or to indicate that something is wrong (such as chest pain for a heart attack). There is a point, though, when the suffering becomes unnecessary, such as when an injury has healed and damaged nerves continue to bombard the brain with messages of pain. At that stage, pain is a medical condition unto itself, a concept little recognized.

"There are a lot of people out there where pain is a disease, and it significantly affects their life; they have to live with it every single day," says Silverman. "For most other people, pain is a transient thing."

The result of this unawareness: Many patients and doctors think constant suffering is just something you have to live with, and, thus, little is done to try to relieve it.

Another common misconception -- many people, including doctors, believe that painkillers are addictive, so they avoid using them.

Diagnosing Pain

It may be obvious that someone is hurting, but measuring physical distress is far from being an exact science. Despite efforts to quantify pain, or to determine its biological history, the fact remains that it is subjective, and people have different tolerances to it.

"There isn't a machine that I can hook you up to that absolutely tells me the amount of discomfort you are having," says B. Eliot Cole, MD, director of education at the American Academy of Pain Management. "So we wind up looking at X-rays, at CT scans, at MRI scans for evidence [of disease] that we think correlates with causing pain."