Pain is more than just a sensation of minor to extreme discomfort. It’s a contributing factor to a number of serious conditions, including depression and anxiety. Doctors often refer to “degree of pain” as the “fifth vital sign.” That’s because pain can be a clinical barometer for what’s going on with your health.

Acute pain occurs suddenly, usually in a matter of days or weeks. “Subacute” pain refers to pain that lasts an intermediate phase of time, generally between 6 to 12 weeks. Unremitting pain that lasts beyond 12 weeks is considered to be ‘chronic’ pain.

Pain relief methods range from at-home treatments, to prescription and over-the-counter medications, to invasive procedures like surgery. Keep in mind that pain relief doesn’t usually happen overnight, but it can. Each person’s pain experience is unique to them.

Read more: Learn how to assess your pain »

Pain is a nervous system response that, for the most part, is intended to have protective effects on the body. For example, the pain you feel when you hold your hand over a hot stove causes you to pull your hand back so you don’t get burned. Musculoskeletal pain can lead you to rest an injured ankle to allow it to heal.

One type of pain, known as neuropathic pain, doesn’t have the same protective purpose. Neuropathic pain has no known benefits. It may be the result of misread signals between the body’s nerves and the brain, or due to intrinsic nerve damage. The brain interprets these signals from the nerves as pain. Examples of this pain type include:

  • scarring
  • shingles neuropathy
  • diabetic neuropathy
  • carpal-tunnel

Finding effective pain relief generally requires you to identify the source of the pain.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience the following symptoms related to your pain:

  • pain hasn’t gone away after 2 to 3 weeks
  • pain contributes to stress, anxiety or depression
  • you find yourself no longer able to relax
  • you can’t exercise or participate in activities as you once did
  • the interventions that used to control your pain are no longer effective

Living with chronic pain can be an emotional and physical challenge. There are many types of interventions that can help you find relief.

Medications can help reduce pain signals. While there are many pain medicines on the market, they fall into four broad categories:

  • acetaminophen: Acetaminophen is a pain reliever that works to reduce pain signals in the brain. Drug manufacturers often combine it with other medications. You can buy it at most drugstores.
  • narcotics: Narcotic medications are potent pain relievers that work by pairing with opioid (feel-good) receptors in the body. They’re an important pain-relieving treatment that may work when other treatments don’t. However, long-term use can result in addiction.
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These medications reduce inflammatory substances in the body known as prostaglandins. Doctors often recommend NSAIDs to help with musculoskeletal pain. Long-term NSAID usage can cause stomach ulcers.
  • adjuvant medications: Adjuvant medications aren’t always specifically prescribed for pain, but they may help relieve it. Examples include antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, muscle relaxers, and sedatives.

Sometimes pain relief doesn’t come from a pill bottle. It might come from exercise or massage therapy. Both can stretch and relieve tired, tense muscles. Other pain-relieving methods include applying hot or cold packs to the skin.

Cognitive behavioral therapy also can help. This method of therapy emphasizes mental-health techniques, such as deep breathing or relaxation. Electrotherapy techniques that involve applying low-voltage electrical stimulation can also help to reduce pain, particularly back pain.

Invasive pain management techniques may work when medications and other therapies don’t. These include injecting pain medicines or anti-inflammatory steroids into specific areas like the knee, muscles, nerves, or ligaments. Injections may not be long-term solutions, but they can provide temporary relief.

Another invasive treatment is radio frequency ablation (or RFA). A doctor applies electrical current via radio waves to nerves to deaden them. Pain is relieved when the nerves can’t send pain signals to the brain. While the treatment doesn’t last a lifetime, it can often provide pain relief for up to 12 months, sometimes even several years.

Doctors can also implant nerve or spinal cord stimulators. These are typically used for chronic arm and leg pain.