HEALTHY LIVING: Right treatment can improve quality of life

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DOCTORS are used to seeing patients who say they’ve been putting up with chronic pain for long periods of time without seeking help, according to a member of the British Pain Society.

Dr Austin Leach, who sits on the council of the organisation which helps medics understand and treat patients’ pain, said he was ‘often amazed at how stoic people are’.

“If you can put unpleasant symptoms on one side and just get on with your life, you can argue that’s the human condition. However, it can impact on your quality of life and some sensible advice can really help,” he said.

“If you’ve got new symptoms, getting a diagnosis is obviously a vitally important step, particularly to exclude treatable or potentially serious conditions. The earlier appropriate treatment is given, the better - it can really improve quality of life.”

If a GP or specialist can’t resolve or reduce symptoms, patients may be referred to a hospital pain clinic. With chronic pain, psychological factors are especially important.

When pain is detected, different nerves send a number of messages to the brain, such as whether the sensation is heavy, sharp or hot, and how painful it is. A cross-referencing system also kicks in, and past experiences of similar pain may affect how sufferers experience it.

“Conscious attention will be much more focused on pain twinges than it would be if you were more relaxed about the cause of the pain,” explained Dr Leach. “You get a range of responses from patients depending on how frightened they are. To manage pain properly, patients need to be aware of the role psychology plays.”

There are a number of drug options for treating chronic pain other than conventional painkillers. Devices such as a Tens machine, which sends mild electrical impulses into the body, can be effective, as can relaxation and breathing techniques.

Acupuncture can also help in some cases, and making a conscious effort to reduce stress levels - through exercise, massage or social activities - can also make a difference.

“It’s very rare that there’s one thing that’s the answer,” said Dr Leach.

“It’s usually a combination of things like explanation and education, reassurance, teaching simple techniques like breathing and relaxation methods, and the right medication. Often this limits the impact of symptoms to such an extent that people can have a significant improvement in their quality of life. Try not to get frightened or angry about it, that always makes it worse.”