2 Clinical need and practice


Pain that persists for more than several months, or beyond the normal course of a disease or expected time of healing, is often defined as chronic. This pain becomes a significant medical condition in itself rather than being a symptom. Chronic pain can affect people of all ages, although in general, its prevalence increases with age. Estimates of the prevalence of this condition in the UK vary from less than 10% to greater than 30% depending on the specific definition of chronic pain used. Chronic pain is accompanied by physiological and psychological changes such as sleep disturbances, irritability, medication dependence and frequent absence from work. Emotional withdrawal and depression are also common, which can strain family and social interactions.


Neuropathic pain is initiated or caused by nervous system damage or dysfunction. Neuropathic pain is difficult to manage because affected people often have a complex history with unclear or diverse causes and comorbidities. Neuropathic conditions include failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS) and complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). People with FBSS continue to have back and/or leg pain despite anatomically successful lumbar spine surgery. It is not easy to identify a specific cause of neuropathic pain and people with FBSS may experience mixed back and leg pain. CRPS may happen after a harmful event or period of immobilisation (type I) or nerve injury (type II). Pain and increased sensitivity to pain are the most significant symptoms and are present in almost all people with CRPS. Other symptoms can include perceived temperature changes, weakness of movement and changes in skin appearance and condition.


Ischaemic pain is caused by a reduction in oxygen delivery to the tissues, usually caused by reduction in blood flow because of constriction of a vessel (vasospasm) or its obstruction by atheroma or embolus. Ischaemic pain is commonly felt in the legs or as angina, but can occur anywhere in the body. Ischaemic pain conditions include critical limb ischaemia (CLI) and refractory angina (RA). CLI is characterised by a reduction of blood flow to the legs and can lead to gangrene, an increased risk of limb loss and a marked increase in mortality. CLI is also characterised by rest pain (which may be felt as a burning sensation), non-healing wounds and/or tissue necrosis. RA may be defined as the occurrence of frequent angina attacks that are not controlled by optimal drug and/or revascularisation therapy, with the presence of coronary artery disease, making percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) or coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery unsuitable.


The goal of treatment for chronic pain is to make pain tolerable and to improve functionality and quality of life. It may be possible to treat the cause of the pain, but usually the pain pathways are modulated by a multidisciplinary approach (described as conventional medical management [CMM] in this document). This may include pharmacological interventions such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, tricyclic antidepressants, anticonvulsants, analgesics and opioids. Non-pharmacological interventions, such as physiotherapy, acupuncture, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation and psychological therapies, can also be a part of CMM. For some chronic pain conditions there may also be condition-specific treatments; for example, people with FBSS may have a repeat operation. People with chronic pain may continue to experience pain despite CMM, and complete relief is rarely achieved.

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)