Why Are We Treating Pain The Same As We Did During The Civil War?

civil war painIt is no secret that there is an opioid problem in the United States. It seems like there is a new report being published every week on the problems with opioids in this country. This week the government published data on the number of emergency room visits related to opioid use in a single year.

The data shows roughly a 100 percent increase in the last ten years in the number of hospital visits and admissions related to opioid problems. Not surprising is that despite some differences from state to state, in general, the problem affects everyone equally – male and female, rich and poor – just like any other addiction. The focus of most data being published is on opioid addiction. Unfortunately, rarely is someone talking about some of the reasons behind the problem, especially as it relates to how the United States treats pain.

How The US Treats Pain

It is really no surprise that there is an opioid problem in the United States. Pain is a very complex set of medical issues, but unlike diabetes or cancer, very little money has been spent on any aspect of pain as a medical problem, and medical school and physician training in understanding and managing pain is virtually nonexistent. Research sponsored by any government or industry sources is minimal compared to all other areas, maybe 2 percent of all money spent by the National Institute of Health and there is no comprehensive strategy to look at treating pain. Most importantly, the tools used to treat pain are the same tools we used at the time of Civil War – opioids. Most other diseases from hypertension to diabetes and cancer over the last fifty years have seen major advancements in how we treat these conditions, but not pain.

On top of the publishing of new data of how many people are being affected by opioids, the news media is full of sensational information on every aspect of the opioid epidemic. Time magazine this week had information on how drug companies and drug treatment centers are profiting from opioid problems. One of the biggest lobbying groups for money and guidelines on opioids are addiction specialists and drug treatment centers; just a slight conflict of interest. Then the sensational news moves to all the individuals who have become addicts and the problems of addicts. Unfortunately, opioid addiction and how it affects individual lives is not really significantly different from other addictions from food to alcohol, it’s just less glamorous. The latest highlight in the news is the potent drugs and overdoses, and how just touching some of these illegal drugs or using for the first time can cause overdoses.

Opioids are a problem in the United States and more data does not help solve the problem – it just makes it sensational. The real issue that is being ignored is the issue behind opioids and how we treat pain. Most of the pain treatments available date back to before the Civil War. Pain is extremely complex, and to solve the opioid issue the United States needs to get serious about finding better pain management tools and invest in them.

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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).