Pain Management – Out With The New, In With The Old?

chronic pain programComprehensive chronic pain programs (CPP) have a long history, and they used to be the mainstay of treating pain. Up until the mid 1990’s, they were present across the country and there were several hundred present in the United States. With the widespread adoption of the use of opioids and the ratcheting down of medical expenses by insurance companies, many of these programs were eventually forced out of existence.

These programs cost between $5,000 and $20,000 and sometimes involved 2-4 weeks or more of inpatient care. In retrospect, considering the cost of surgeries and medications, these programs were probably a cheap investment for high quality proven outcomes. Today there are very few of these programs left – less than 100 nationwide – and we are suffering from a crisis of pain management and opioid addiction. In Minnesota, there only several left in the state.

Comprehensive Chronic Pain Programs

The typical chronic pain program is a behavioral based approach to pain with an emphasis on weaning off of all opioids. Nonaddictive medications are fine, and surgical or interventional approaches to pain are usually not a part of the program. Most of the emphasis is on changing behavior as it relates to pain. There is guided physical therapy, often aquatics, dietary advice and significant amounts of group and some individual psychological intervention toward the effects of pain on mood and activity level. The goal is to increase activity and function and show a person that their pain levels are often minimally impacted.

These programs are most successful for those whom have withdrawn from life and interactions. A typical patient in one of these programs is depressed, isolated, sedentary and not working. They often are very focused on taking medications and feel their pain prevents them from doing anything. However, to be successful in such a program, they must want to change their lifestyle.

Unfortunately, if you have chronic pain and are maintaining function in life, these programs often have little to offer. For a person who is well adjusted, with multiple outside of the home interests, working full-time, trying to exercise, doing meditation and not taking opioids, these programs have minimal things to offer that would be worthwhile. Pain management for many complex chronic pain patients is often much more difficult. Further, there are very few physicians in general who specialize in pain, and even fewer who have the interest, knowledge and experience to deal with many of these people.  

Finding a chronic pain program is often not too difficult, and asking your insurance company or physician will probably get you pointed in the right direction. Finding a good pain physician that will meet your needs can be extremely challenging. A good place to start is a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician that is board certified in pain. After that, look for recommendations and then visit with the doctor to see if they can meet your needs. Finding the right physician is often difficult, and unfortunately there are no easy answers when it comes to pain management.

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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).