Most people who have chronic pain, no matter what the source, believe they are alone in the world and that no one has similar problems and no one in medicine can appreciate the problems they suffer. However, as I have often said, about 30 percent of the population in the world has problems of some type with pain. It is the same in the United States as it is in the undeveloped world in Africa or in the industrial world of Europe or Japan. If so many people have pain, a lot of people have similar types of problems and there are likely medical professionals that do understand pain problems. There are many types of medical professionals that see pain patients, including Chiropractors, Physical Therapists and Psychologists, to all kinds of physicians including Physiatrists to surgeons.
Who Should I See For My Pain?
The best person for one to see is someone who may understand whatever problems are causing pain. If the problem is simple, it may not matter who you see because many professionals understand and are trained on that care. The more complex the problem, the harder it becomes to find professionals who care and understand the issues and have the expertise to coordinate management. My personal bias for the complex patient is to find a pain clinic that is led by a specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation – a Physiatrist. These are the physicians that have been crossed trained across multiple specialties including internal medicine, rheumatology (arthritis), neurology and orthopedics among many disciplines. Most of these doctors are good at coordinating a team effort to help patients. As with any doctor or specialist, 90 percent of them will do a good job and 10 percent will be outstanding.
Finding an outstanding doctor is always difficult. Sometimes it is a gift of a good personality, others listen well, and some just have so much experience that they can help those who want help and are willing to work toward a solution. Every patient has a different need and many patients will define good doctors and professionals in their own ways. Some doctors just understand things better because they have been through the problems personally.
My Personal Experience
To tell the truth, when I was in my medical training, the experience I had treating pain patients was one of my least favorite areas. I always was looking for other things to treat, including pediatrics, spinal cord injuries, electrodiagnostics and inpatient rehabilitation. As I entered private practice 30 years ago, I did inpatient rehabilitation of devastating problems like stroke and spinal cord injury, and outpatient care of every type of medical problem that could cause pain. After about five years I was doing more outpatient than inpatient, and eventually I transitioned to all outpatient practice. Most of my patients had medical problems or injuries that somehow caused pain. Either I needed to get good with diagnosis and treatment or else find something else to do, so I worked at getting good at that special area.
Unfortunately as I became older, I not only became wiser, but also had back pain problems from an injury to my lumbar spine as a medical student when I tried weightlifting. I also saw close people around me have issues with pain, from my wife to all my children at times. Some of the problems have been easy to help manage, some I struggle with daily and are heartbreaking even for me. The most important thing about the overall experience is that it develops a level of empathy and knowledge that it takes a ton of work on both the patient’s part and the treating physician to provide good care and help with a management plan. Furthermore, for many people pain never goes away, but is something that gets managed. It is physical and it is mental, in your brain and it affects the perception of life. It can be time consuming, tiring and often it seems depressing. Despite all the problems, the reward is moving forward and seeing the world change.
If you have pain, you are part of a third of the world population who does have pain. There are many people out in this world that can help guide you through the maze of pain management. Finding the right person for you may take time. There are multiple choices and multiple providers that may help. Yes, some people are better than others, and some will be more helpful, and lastly you may not like some of the people who may actually have the best answers. Life is tough, but it will be a team effort to move forward, and the most important person to move forward is you.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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