Living With Chronic Health Conditions
Chronic conditions are long-lasting and require ongoing medical treatment or adjustments to one's daily life. "Chronic" is often used in contrast to "acute," which refers to a condition that comes on rapidly. When you are ill with an acute condition like the flu, you know that you will be back to normal within a short period. A chronic disease, however, may never go away and can disrupt your life in many ways.
Common examples of chronic conditions include heart disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis. According to research from the RAND Corporation, 60 percent of Americans have at least one chronic condition, and 42 percent of them have more than one chronic condition.
Chronic pain and treatment
Everyone experiences pain from time to time. For instance, you may sprain your ankle after stepping off a curb, but once the sprain heals, the pain goes away. This is an example of acute pain because it occurs quickly, has a specific cause and goes away once there is no longer an underlying cause. With chronic pain, on the other hand, you keep hurting for months or even years after the injury or illness.
Some of the most common causes of chronic pain include:
- Past injuries
- Back pain
- Nerve damage
To relieve chronic pain, doctors try to identify and treat the cause, and treatments come in many different forms. The approach depends on the type of pain and its cause, and sometimes the most effective treatment plans employ a variety of strategies, including medications, lifestyle modifications and therapies.
Many people who experience chronic pain take part in a pain management rehab program. The goal of these programs is to help the patient return to the greatest level of function possible, while improving their overall quality of life.
Treatment for chronic pain includes many well-known and lesser-known methods.
Prescription and over-the-counter medications, including opioids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, and acetaminophen (Tylenol), can effectively reduce pain. Topical creams are often used to relieve pain associated with muscle aches and arthritis.
Cold and heat treatments
Using cold and heat can reduce pain and stiffness. Heat therapy works by improving blood flow to the area in pain; it can relax muscles and help heal damaged muscle tissue. Cold therapy does the opposite by reducing blood flow to a particular area. This can reduce swelling that causes pain.
Infusion pain pumps can deliver medication where needed, and spinal cord stimulators use low levels of electricity to change the pain signals sent to the brain.
Physical therapists help reduce pain by using techniques that improve movement and function in the area of the body that is impaired. Muscle stretching and strengthening are among the techniques often involved in physical therapy.
Exercising can reduce joint inflammation and address spinal alignment issues and muscle weakening.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
This psychological treatment method can help you think differently about pain and give you ways to cope with it.
Many people find pain relief in alternative therapies, including mind-body therapies, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic manipulation therapies and nutritional supplements.
Chronic autoimmune issues and treatment
Chronic autoimmune disease is a condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body. The immune system guards against viruses, bacteria and other threats to our health. When it senses foreign invaders, it sends out fighter cells to attack them. Typically, the immune system can differentiate between foreign cells and your own cells, but people with a chronic autoimmune disease have an immune system that mistakes part of their body as foreign. As a result, their immune system releases auto-antibodies to attack healthy cells.
More than 80 types of autoimmune diseases can affect a wide variety of body parts. It's not clear what causes autoimmune diseases, but they tend to be hereditary. Women, especially Black, Hispanic and Native American women, are at greater risk for some autoimmune diseases, some of the most common of which include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- Graves' disease
Treatments cannot cure autoimmune diseases, but they can control the overactive immune response and reduce pain and inflammation. Medications commonly used to treat autoimmune diseases include NSAIDs, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and immune-suppressing drugs such as corticosteroids.
Pain medications can relieve joint, bone and muscular pain. Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise may help people with an autoimmune disease feel better. Treatments can also help relieve symptoms like pain, swelling, fatigue and skin rashes.
Digestive disorders and treatment
Digestive disorders and diseases affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which runs from the mouth to the anus, and includes all the organs of the digestive system. Common types of chronic digestive disorders and their corresponding treatments are discussed below.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
GERD is a chronic condition in which acid from the stomach comes up into the esophagus, with heartburn manifesting as the main symptom. To treat GERD, lifestyle modifications and over-the-counter medications are usually recommended first, and if the patient does not experience relief after a few weeks, prescription drugs or surgery may be used.
Peptic ulcers are open sores that develop in the stomach and intestine, and burning stomach pain is the most common symptom. Common treatments include antibiotics to kill the H. pylori bacterium, medications that block acid production, antacids that neutralize stomach acid and medications that protect the lining of the stomach and small intestine.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
IBD is chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis—two autoimmune diseases—are common types of inflammatory bowel disease. Symptoms include irritation, swelling, diarrhea, abdominal pain, loss of appetite and weight loss. IBD can be treated with medications that block the immune response, but surgery is another treatment option.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
A separate condition from IBD, IBS involves a group of intestinal symptoms that usually occur together and vary in severity and duration. IBS symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, constipation and diarrhea. Fortunately, IBS does not damage the digestive tract or raise the risk for colon cancer. Symptoms can typically be controlled through diet and lifestyle changes.
Diverticulitis occurs when the diverticula—small, bulging pouches that form in the lining of the digestive system—become inflamed or infected. They are found most often in the colon and are common after age 40. Mild diverticulitis is typically treated with antibiotics, but in severe cases, surgery may be required.
Colorectal cancer is any cancer that affects the colon and the rectum. Its symptoms include a persistent change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, cramping in the rectum and a feeling that you can't empty your bowels completely. Treatment typically involves surgery to remove the cancerous tumor or growth, but other possible treatments include chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Mental impact of being chronically ill
Living with a chronic illness can affect you both physically and mentally. Depression is among the most common mental conditions that result from chronic illness. According to the Cleveland Clinic, up to one-third of people with a chronic illness experience depression, which is more than just being sad—it's a serious illness that may carry physical symptoms.
Common symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent sadness
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Appetite changes
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Aches or pains, headaches and cramps
- Feelings of guilt
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Fatigue or decreased energy
- Suicidal thoughts
Many people with chronic disease experience fear, anxiety and anger. Feelings of fear are to be expected when the future is uncertain, and anxiety can make a patient irritable, tense and restless. Such conditions can lead to insomnia. Severe cases of anxiety can take the form of a panic attack, which can lead to a racing heart, chills, sweating, trembling, breathing problems, stomach pain and nausea. Furthermore, discovering that you have a chronic illness can exacerbate the symptoms of a preexisting mental health condition.
While living with chronic disease and pain is challenging, keep in mind that you can manage your symptoms and maintain a good quality of life. It's important to be proactive and learn as much as you can about your chronic disease and your treatment options. Take care of yourself and make your health and well-being a top priority.