The Treatment of Chronic Pain
By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations
From a stubbed toe, to a sprained knee or back pain after overdoing it in the yard, many of us experience some kind of pain every day. Some pain, like a stubbed toe, is easily described (perhaps with a shouted four-letter word) and generally goes away on its own. Acute pain usually has a physical cause, like injury, disease, or surgery, and is resolved once you’ve treated the cause and healed. Most of us keep over-the-counter painkillers, like Tylenol and ibuprofen, in our medicine cabinet to deal with everyday pain.
Chronic pain is persistent, continuing for at least three months, and some people live with it for years. An estimated 76 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. Chronic pain may be the result of an initial injury, like a back sprain or a surgery, but there isn’t always a clear cause. Living with chronic pain is challenging, as the condition is often incurable. Management is possible and best accomplished by working in partnership with your physician.
One of the most common tools to treat pain is to prescribe painkillers. When used as recommended, prescription painkillers safely and effectively ease our hurts. In recent years, however, the dangers of prescription painkillers have become clear. In 2010, enough prescription painkillers were prescribed to medicate every American adult all day, every day, for an entire month. That same year, one in twelve people from age 12 used those same painkillers for non-medical use, many using the drugs recreationally.
The high produced by opioid painkillers such as hydrocodone, methadone, oxycodone and oxymorphone is strikingly similar to the high produced by heroin. Unfortunately, opioid drugs and heroin are also similarly addictive. In 2008, and in each year thereafter, more than 15,000 people have died by overdosing on painkillers. That is the loss of more than 90,000 people — roughly the population of Roswell, GA — in just six years.
Prescription painkillers are often an essential part of treating chronic pain. Anyone using opioids should be carefully monitored, although very few people who are prescribed opioids and use them as directed become addicted. Long-term users may become physically dependent on the drugs (this is not the same as an addiction disorder.)
If you are prescribed opioid painkillers, keep them safely stored and make sure that you are the only person with access to them. You can learn more about opioids on the NIH website.
Alternatives to prescription drugs can be used to successfully manage chronic pain. For some of us, the idea that acupuncture or meditation can ease pain seems farfetched. But many non-drug interventions can and do work as pain relievers.
Acupuncture is sometimes represented in pop culture as a trendy treatment used by the “far out.” The therapy that consists of pricking the skin with needles does work, though we’re still not sure why. It won’t work for every patient, but there are no side effects if it doesn’t.
Exercise is medicine. Though going out for a walk or a swim may seem impossible when you’re not feeling great, exercise may be just what you need. Physical activity improves mood and boosts energy. Health conditions may mean that you need to avoid certain types of exercise, so always check with your doctor before getting started.
Yoga, hypnosis, massage and biofeedback can all help manage chronic pain. Each activity is useful for reducing stress. Pain is stressful, and living in a state of stress increases pain. Breaking out of the painful, stressful cycle is very helpful when working to manage chronic pain.