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1 in 5 Americans have chronic pain. In fact, chronic pain affects more people than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease- combined. Whether it stems from an injury, illness, or an unknown cause, pain can significantly impact our lives. When discussing pain, it is important to distinguish between non-structural pain and structural pain. These terms refer to different types of pain, each with its own characteristics, causes, and treatment approaches. While structural pain is widely acknowledged, only 15% of low back pain can point to a structural cause, so 85% is likely non-structural. This disparity highlights the importance of understanding both types of chronic pain.
In this article, we will delve into the differences between non-structural pain and structural pain, shedding light on their unique aspects and helping you better understand and manage these types of pain.
What is Structural Pain?
Structural pain, as the name suggests, is associated with identifiable structural abnormalities or damage within the body. This type of pain usually arises from an injury, trauma, inflammation, or degenerative conditions affecting the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, or other anatomical structures.
Examples of structural pain include
- herniated discs
- post-surgical pain
Diagnosing & Treating Structural Pain
Structural pain is typically localized to the specific area where the underlying damage or abnormality exists. Diagnostic tests such as X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and physical examinations often reveal evidence of the structural problem causing the pain.
The treatment of structural pain primarily revolves around addressing the underlying cause. This may involve interventions such as surgeries, physical therapy, medications, injections, and other targeted approaches to promote healing, reduce inflammation, and restore normal function. In some cases, chronic structural pain may require long-term pain management strategies to improve comfort and mobility.
What is Non-Structural Pain?
Non-structural pain, also known as functional pain, is characterized by discomfort or distress without any underlying structural abnormalities or damage to the body. This type of pain arises from dysfunction or abnormal processing within the nervous system. The nervous system becomes “stuck” in believing there is danger and continues to send signals of pain to the brain even when the threat is over. These signals are often perceived as an intense, chronic, and widespread pain that lacks an identifiable cause.
Causes of non-structural pain can vary widely and may include conditions such as
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- tension headaches
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
Psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, and depression can exacerbate non-structural pain, leading to a complex interaction between the mind and body.
Diagnosing & Treating Non-Structural Pain
Unlike structural pain, non-structural pain does not show clear abnormalities on imaging tests or physical examinations. This aspect can make diagnosis challenging, often requiring the expertise of a multidisciplinary team including physicians, psychologists, and pain specialists.
Treatments for non-structural pain include nervous system regulation and improving overall well-being for a lasting ripple effect. By addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of non-structural pain, individuals can experience significant relief and a better quality of life.
Differentiating Between Non-Structural Pain and Structural Pain
Understanding the differences between non-structural pain and structural pain is essential for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Here are some key points to consider:
Non-Structural Pain and Structural Pain Are Not Mutually Exclusive
While these two types of pain have distinct differences, it is entirely possible to experience both non-structural pain and structural pain. For many people, their pain may begin as structural but then it becomes non-structural. There can be many reasons for this, such as a nervous system that still believes it is in danger or a treatment that address the structural component (such as physical therapy or surgery) but does not address any non-structural elements of pain.
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Non-structural pain and structural pain are two distinct categories that encompass a wide range of painful conditions. While non-structural pain arises from dysfunctional processing within the nervous system, structural pain is rooted in identifiable damage or abnormalities in anatomical structures. Recognizing the differences between these types of pain is crucial for accurate diagnosis and implementing appropriate treatment strategies.
Whether you are dealing with non-structural pain or structural pain, seeking professional medical advice is essential. Remember that pain management often requires a comprehensive approach, taking into account physical, psychological, and lifestyle factors. By understanding these distinct types of pain and the treatments available, you can work towards finding relief and improving your overall well-being.