Chronic pain is pain that a person experiences for a long period of time (longer than 3 months) after an injury. Pain is a complex issue for people with brain injury, as not only is there bodily pain, but the way they perceive pain may have changed as well. Pain can also make symptoms of brain injury worse, especially if it impedes the person’s ability to perform rehabilitation exercises.
A person with a brain injury can experience bodily pain which is common in the neck, shoulders, back, hips and knees and can be caused by comorbid conditions (conditions that happened/are happening at the same time). This is typically an aching pain or a sharp pain and gets worse with activity. Neuropathic pain is nerve-related and can be a burning, tingling, stabbing or shooting sensation . Headaches are common (particularly after concussions) and can be debilitating. Many individuals report chronic pain after their brain injury to varying degrees  and in different parts of the body .
Chronic pain can have side effects. It can also impact mental health and emotions, social life, behaviours, and causes problems with thought processing. We have more information on coping with these kinds of effects on the following pages:
Managing chronic pain after brain injury
Without management, chronic pain can impact quality of life and rehabilitation. This is detrimental for both the person’s physical and mental health. Chronic pain can keep a person from engaging in activities they like and socializing with friends and family. It can also contribute to sleep problems and impact their emotions. When they are tired, they may notice their pain threshold is actually worse, which then again contributes to bad sleep.
By learning about and helping your friend/family member manage chronic pain, you can improve quality of life, manage other symptoms and bring the focus back to rehabilitation and activities of daily living (ADLs).
Chronic pain management and treatment may include physical therapy and medication. Physical therapy can help with improving mobility, identifying pain points, teaching proper stretching and exercise forms. Pacing strategies taught by a therapist are also very important for managing chronic pain. It’s a long process but can yield positive results with time and patience. The survivor may need your assistance with completing exercises or activities at home.
Doctors will provide prescriptions for medication if appropriate. The prescription could be as simple as an over-the-counter headache medication. However, in some cases they may prescribe medications targeted to the type of pain that the person is experiencing. Some medications may contain opioids: used safely, they are an effective pain medication. But used incorrectly, they can be dangerous. Opioid overdoses can actually cause brain injury. It’s important for the patient to use prescribed medication correctly, and work with doctors continually for effective pain management. Some additional examples of pain management techniques include:
- Avoiding substances such as alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, etc.
- Commit to developing a healthy sleep routine
- Meditation and mindfulness can help reduce stress, which can aggravate pain
- Pacing strategies
Reach out to your local brain injury association and look into resources or support groups for brain injury survivors for more information. Others may have experience with managing chronic pain.