Physiotherapist working with senior patient

Manage Chronic Pain and Get Back to an Active Lifestyle

In 2016, an estimated 20% of adults in the United States had chronic pain, making it one of the most common reasons adults seek medical care. Among the Veteran community, the rates of people suffering from chronic pain are even higher. Chronic pain can be hard to diagnose and managing it can be difficult as well. Learning more about what it is, how to diagnose it and what treatment options are available can make chronic pain management more effective.

Chronic pain can feel overwhelming, but with the right diagnosis and a personalized treatment plan in place, you can manage it effectively and improve your quality of life.

What Is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is different from acute pain. Acute pain is immediate and temporary, a warning from your body that you may be injured. It can include things like trauma, heart attacks and fractures. Chronic pain is different. It is pain that persists even after your body has healed, usually for three months or longer, sometimes lasting for years. Chronic pain can happen for many reasons—resulting from a chronic condition, such as arthritis or diabetes, from an autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, from past injuries or for other reasons. For some people, there may not be an obvious underlying reason.

Chronic pain is not life-threatening, but it does affect your lifestyle. It may impact your sleep, increase your stress levels or make it hard to carry out day-to-day activities. Both acute and chronic pain can be severe, but different treatments are used to manage them.

How Do I Get a Diagnosis?

Because chronic pain is personal and cannot be measured by a single test or a machine, it can be hard to diagnose. You have to work with your health care provider to describe your pain, its intensity, its location and any underlying health issues you may have. You should also describe any treatments you have already tried, what its current impact is on your day-to-day activities and how you cope with it.

With this information, your health care provider can determine if your pain is chronic, rather than an acute injury, and begin to work with you on developing a treatment plan.

What Role Can I Play in My Pain Management?

Close-up-of-senior-man-holding-his-kneeTreatment of chronic pain begins with you and the ways you can help manage your pain and reduce its impact on your life. This is called self-management. It involves doing things other than taking medications, having surgery or using medical treatments. Self-management helps you take control of your pain, resume some normal activities and feel good that you are no longer controlled by your pain. VA offers mobile apps, courses, tips and other resources to help you work on your self-management plan. Here are some additional tips:

  • Work closely with your health care provider to make an individual treatment plan. What can you do to lessen the impact of chronic pain? How can you improve your quality of life? What activities are most important for you to resume?
  • Look at your lifestyle and what factors may be contributing to your pain. Things like inactivity, stress, nicotine dependence, poor sleep and unhealthy eating can all make pain symptoms worse.
  • Practice relaxation and stress reduction techniques. Breathing exercises, yoga, massage and meditation are all helpful ways to reduce pain.
  • Get enough physical activity. Regular walks, stretching and movement can promote better functioning, strengthen muscles and help with your balance and coordination.

What Treatment Options Are Available?

There are multiple treatment options available to help you reach your goals, although no single treatment is right for everyone. Here is a brief overview of some of the treatments VA offers:

Non-drug treatments

Woman receiving acupuncture treatments

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Chronic Pain (CBT-CP)
    • CBT-CP is an effective treatment for reducing the negative impacts of chronic pain. It equips individuals with a problem-solving approach to decrease challenges, reduce pain intensity, improve quality of life, manage flare-ups and more.
  • Complementary treatments
    • This approach consists of a variety of things, including mind-body behavioral interventions, acupuncture, massage, osteopathic and chiropractic manipulation, meditative movement therapies such as yoga, tai chi and more.
  • Whole health pain management
    • Whole health combines conventional medicine with personalized health planning, complementary and integrative health and innovative self-care approaches.

Many of these non-drug treatments have helped patients reduce their pain and improve their quality of life without some of the side effects of drugs.

Medical treatments

  • Medications
    • There are several medications that can help manage chronic pain, including acetaminophen, NSAIDs such as aspirin and ibuprofen, antidepressants, antianxiety medications and more.
  • Medical procedures
    • Procedures can include ultrasounds, nerve blocks, steroid injections, joint or nerve injections, epidural injections, laser therapy and much more. 


Health care providers used to think that opioids were safe and could help reduce chronic pain when used for long periods, but new information has taught us that long-term opioid use may not be helpful and can lead to opioid use disorder, addiction, problems with sleep and more. A recent VA study demonstrated that opioids used to treat chronic pain were not superior in terms of effectiveness but were associated with significant side effects. 

Additional Resources

  • VA Pain Management is the homepage for exploring all your VA treatment options.
  • VA Opioid Safety offers resources and information about opioids and their use in treating chronic pain.
  • Make the Connection has information on chronic pain, as well as personal stories and videos from Veterans who have managed chronic pain, overcome opioid addiction and more.

Chronic pain can feel overwhelming, but with the right diagnosis and a personalized treatment plan in place, you can manage it effectively and improve your quality of life.

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