Nearly 800,000 Americans suffer from a stroke every year, making strokes the leading cause of serious long-term disability. While most people understand that surviving a stroke means living with neurological deficits, few expect to be left with physical pain. In truth, even many doctors are unaware that pain can be a common side effect of stroke, even though about 10% of stroke survivors will suffer from intense chronic pain.
Risk Factors for Chronic Pain
Just like there are risk factors which increase your chances of suffering a stroke, there are risk factors for suffering from pain after surviving a stroke. According to recent research from the American Stroke Association, the most significant risk factors for post-stroke pain include alcohol consumption, previous depression, type-2 diabetes, vascular disease, and statin use. Women are also significantly more likely than men to experience post-stroke pain.
Chronic Pain Disorders
Central post-stroke pain syndrome (CPSP) is a neurological disorder that can result from a stroke. With CPSP, the portion of the brain responsible for processing sensory data, like heat and touch, has become damaged. CPSP often starts as localized numbness on one side of the body, but gradually becomes a debilitating tingling or burning sensation.
Some people also develop allodynia, a type of hypersensitivity that causes pain from stimuli that normally wouldn’t cause pain. That sensitivity may be set off by stimulation as minor as the pressure of clothing, or even small changes in temperature. For effective treatment, it’s important to watch for the onset of CPSP because it’s easily misdiagnosed, and it may occur weeks or even years after a stroke.
Painkillers as Treatment
Unfortunately, treating post-stroke pain can be very difficult. While narcotics, sedatives, and muscle relaxants are effective at treating pain, they can worsen cognitive impairments caused by the stroke. Additionally, research shows that stroke patients who use painkillers as treatment are prone to addiction and dependence.
Fortunately, there are a number of alternative treatments worth trying. With training from a physical therapist, you may be able to manage chronic stroke pain with no more than relaxation, heat packs, and stretching.
Tips for Coping with Pain
Many people find it useful to keep a pain diary. By keeping very specific notes about what causes you pain and when, your doctor may be able to create a more effective treatment plan. It’s also important to avoid the things that trigger pain. While those triggers may vary from person to person, they often include hot water, tight clothing, and pressure on a part of the body affected by the stroke.
As with any illness, inactivity and the loss of muscle will only make your symptoms worse. Remaining active is essential to the treatment of almost all chronic pain. Above all, it’s critical that people who suffer from chronic pain to be honest with their caregivers about their pain. Patients’ hiding their post-stroke pain is one of the reasons why so many doctors remain unaware that strokes can cause chronic pain. It can be a hard conversation to have, but it’s the first step to getting the help you need.