Pain can feel isolating and debilitating. Many Veterans decline to receive help because they don’t think they can improve.
But you can. Recognize your type of pain and understand its impact on the mind. Then you can pursue a range of treatments that touch upon all your symptoms.
Here is what you need to know about chronic pain.
The Types of Chronic Pain
When people think of chronic pain, they often think of persistent lower back pain. A 2020 survey found that more than 80 percent of Veterans had daily back pain.
But there are multiple kinds of pain that Veterans can suffer from. Many Veterans of the Gulf War have persistent abdominal pain. They may feel discomfort in the stomach, alongside symptoms like nausea and diarrhea.
Veterans from all wars have reported high rates of persistent chest pain. This may manifest alongside or independently from heart disease. This can occur from traumatic injuries or the wear-and-tear of carrying heavy equipment for long periods.
A common medical condition amongst Veterans is neck arthritis, which produces persistent neck pain. Crouching or bending over for a long period of time pulls on vertebrae and skeletal muscles. This can deteriorate into arthritis, especially as a person gets older.
Traumatic brain injuries often cause persistent headaches. These headaches can occur long after the injury was inflicted. A Veteran may notice that their head pain radiates into their eyes and face or down into their neck and shoulders.
A Veteran can suffer from multiple kinds of pain at once. Less common pains include chronic foot and leg pain. But a Veteran can suffer from chronic pain in virtually any part of their body.
The Effects of Physical Pain on the Mind
The body and mind are closely linked. A condition that manifests in the body may impact cognitive processes through time.
Many people who suffer from chronic pain report emotional distress. It can be hard to focus on work or be with family while they are in pain. They may feel like their pain will never end, causing them to feel sad or anxious.
For many Veterans, their physical pain manifests alongside post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2020 meta-analysis examined 20 studies on PTSD and chronic pain in Veterans.
It concluded that Veterans with PTSD have worse pain than Veterans without. Veterans with PTSD have less confidence in their health, which could result in their pain being worse. They sometimes state that their bodies are “physically damaged,” a belief that may lead them to punish themselves for their pain.
Female Veterans and Pain
A 2018 presentation from the Department of Veterans Affairs noted that women report greater pain than men. They are also more likely to report severe pain and suffer from multiple painful conditions.
There are several reasons for this. Females have differently structured pelvises than people than males, this can lead to fractures when climbing or carrying heavy objects.
Women experience sexual trauma more often than men. This can cause PTSD, which is associated with higher physical pain rates.
During medical appointments, women are asked less about pain than men. When men report pain, their reports are taken more seriously than women’s reports. This leads them to receive less treatment, exacerbating their pain.
Treating Persistent Pain
Whatever chronic pain you suffer from, you can get treatment. Treatment plans are versatile and personalized so they allow you to live your life and go to work.
One common treatment is physical therapy. Even basic exercises like walking can help.
Exercise provides endorphins, which are pleasurable chemicals that travel throughout the body. In and of itself, this can reduce pain and improve mental health.
Exercise also creates a feedback loop. When you exercise without pain, you send a signal to your brain that exercise does not hurt. Your nervous system learns to trust that exercise is safe, reducing pain.
You can also receive a massage. This relieves tightness and sends blood into your muscles, reducing swelling and inflammation.
Your doctor may prescribe you opioids. But you should talk with your doctor about them. Take the prescribed amount and remain in touch with your team while you are on them.
Diet can also help. Reducing consumption of spicy or acidic foods can relieve stomach and intestinal pain. Eating a balanced diet gives the body the nutrients it needs for heart and muscle health.
Talking to a psychiatrist can help with physical pain, even if you don’t have a psychological condition. You can come up with coping strategies, focusing on something else other than your pain.
Less common but powerful treatments include dry needling. A therapist inserts small needles into the muscle tissue, relieving pain there.
Get the Care You Deserve
Persistent pain can occur in any part of a veteran’s body. Common pains include back, chest, and neck pain. You may suffer from pain in multiple places at once.
Veterans with PTSD often suffer from immense pain. Physical pain can lead to depression and anxiety. Female Veterans experience pain more often than men.
But anyone can get help. A combination of physical therapy with psychological measures works for millions of Veterans. Try massaging and dry needling.
Turn to experts with experience. The Operation Red Wings Foundation has helped nearly 2,500 Veterans with chronic pain. Learn more about our programs here.