What Is Chronic Pain Syndrome? Doctors Break It Down

Shot of a young woman suffering from depression in her bedroom
Getty Images | LaylaBird
Getty Images | LaylaBird

Pain of any sort is never a fun experience, but the discomfort usually stops when your body heals. Unfortunately, if your pain persists for months on end, you may be experiencing chronic pain syndrome.

Chronic pain syndrome is a poorly defined syndrome that is most often recognized as debilitating pain that lasts longer than three months, says Leia Rispoli, MD, a double-board certified interventional pain management specialist and physiatrist at DISC Sports and Spine Center. "Statistics indicate that 20 to 30 percent of people experience chronic pain syndrome, but I would say it's probably under-served and under-recognized because patients are either too afraid or feel dismissed by seeking the wrong provider in terms of how to treat it or what options they have."

People are not born with chronic pain syndrome, but the condition can happen to anyone, says David Clarke, MD, a double-board certified internal medicine physician and gastroenterologist and president of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association. The pain can develop slowly over time or occur suddenly in response to a stressful situation, event, or circumstance, he adds.

But what causes chronic pain syndrome? And what are the symptoms and treatment options? Ahead, doctors break down everything you need to know about the painful condition.


Experts Featured in This Article:

Leia Rispoli, MD, a double-board certified interventional pain management specialist and physiatrist at DISC Sports and Spine Center.

David Clarke, MD, a double-board certified internal medicine physician and gastroenterologist and president of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association.


What Is Chronic Pain Syndrome?

Chronic pain syndrome is any form of pain lasting longer than three months that is not due to an organ disease or structural damage from an accident, fracture, sprain, or bruise, Dr. Clarke says. The condition also causes several areas of pain in the body which makes it functionally, emotionally, and socially debilitating, Dr. Rispoli adds.

The exact cause of chronic pain syndrome is unclearhazy, but the pain is likely generated in the brain due to changes in neuroanatomic pathways (the system of nerves and glands the body uses to handle stress) linked to past or present psychosocial stress such as mental health issues, depression, anxiety, or physical or mental trauma that affects deep within the central nervous system, Dr. Clarke says.

However, chronic pain can also be linked to an injury or painful condition such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, back pain, surgical trauma, or cancer.

Symptoms of Chronic Pain Syndrome

Chronic pain syndrome presents as ongoing pain that persists for at least three months, says Dr. Rispoli. "It can be a low-level, constant pain, or it can be intermittent pain that limits normal daily function often described as dull or sharp or a nervy-like, electric feeling."

The pain can occur in a variety of locations within the body and vary in intensity from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour, Dr. Clarke says.

Additional symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Poor sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Despair
  • Hopelessness
  • Lack of sex drive
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Grief

Chronic Pain Syndrome vs. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

These two conditions often get confused, but there a some distinct differences worth pointing out. For starters, complex regional pain syndrome is a type of chronic pain syndrome that typically affects a limb, often after an injury or surgery, that causes continuous burning or throbbing pain (usually in an arm, leg, hand, or foot), temperature sensitivity, swelling, changes in skin appearance, joint stiffness, muscle spasms, and decreased mobility, Dr. Clarke says. The exact cause of complex regional pain syndrome is typically due to a dysregulation of the sympathetic nervous system, causing severe, debilitating regionalized pain in a limb that is often difficult to treat, Dr. Rispoli adds.

Chronic pain syndrome also differs from complex regional pain syndrome because there is always an inciting event with complex regional pain syndrome, whether it be a minor accident or major surgery, Dr. Rispoli says.

Chronic Pain Syndrome Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no "cure" for chronic pain syndrome, says Dr. Rispoli. Instead, the first order of business is to identify the stress or stressors that are responsible for the chronic pain through a thorough physical exam, blood work, and in-depth medical history, she explains. X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans may also be necessary to rule out disease or injury that may be the culprit of the chronic pain, Dr. Clarke adds.

From there, treating chronic pain syndrome involves an individualized, multidisciplinary approach that can include various medications, physical and mental therapy, and/or lifestyle modifications, Dr. Rispoli says. You may also be referred to a pain management specialist or pain clinic for further workups and treatment options. "I tell most of my patients coming in with chronic pain that we might not fix your pain 100 percent, but we are working together to find tools to help manage the pain," she says. "With the tools we have available to us now to treat chronic pain syndrome, it's important for people to know that there are doctors that can really help manage their symptoms."


Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based freelance writer and graduate from Emory University and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in PS, Women's Health, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.