A Doctor Who Understands Your Pain

spine pain cohnI have been known to preach a little about the work it takes to control pain. It is not about taking a pill or just going to therapy and it will all be better. I often offer advice and I rarely cut people a lot of slack. I also do not like opioid medications, but that is for obvious reasons related to effectiveness and addiction. But most people wonder if I actually understand pain. The answer is yes, I deal with my own issues daily, but my patients are not paying to listen to me complain. The reality is I had to learn what works for me to manage my issues.

My Pain Story

My story started in medical school. Keeping in shape was important just to have the energy to spend countless hours in class and studying. At one point, a housemate convinced me to try weightlifting. The second time I tried I had the weights in the wrong position, lost my balance, and took out my back. I probably herniated a disc in my lower back, but there were no scans available then. I did therapy and over months it became manageable most of the time, not slowing me down if I was generally careful and not doing stupid things.

In my mid forties, 20 years later, my back started to become more noticeable. I had regular low back pain, and it started to frequently radiate down the leg. I gave up on running since that set it off, and just tried to keep in reasonable shape. This worked until I was in my late forties, and then finally I had a MRI scan that showed a significant slippage at the bottom of the spine, a disc that was pretty much shot and a lot of narrowing where the nerves exit the spine. The radiologist that read the scan had only one question for me, and that when was I thinking about having surgery. Surgery had not crossed my mind since my issue was pain. I decided to follow the advice I had given others; If there was no weakness and no loss of bowel or bladder control, surgery was not the answer.  

Conservative management was my goal. I had a couple of lumbar epidurals that brought down the worst pain and I did a few physical therapy sessions and they gave me a ton of exercises. The exercises were repetitive, and they seemed to be focused on the same muscles, doing all of them took about 40 minutes and they were boring. As the pain improved, I gave up on the program. Within 18 months the pain was again bad and I had another epidural, but I thought I needed to condense the exercise program. I narrowed it down to a set of core exercises that were all different parts of my core muscles, and I added a stretching regimen. Core work was about 10-20 minutes depending on what I did, and stretching was only about 5-10 minutes at the most.

My kids were hockey players, and my daughter had scoliosis and had exercises and a balance board. When I tried the balance stuff, I was terrible and it proved to me I needed to work more on core. I also felt since I was getting old, general strengthening would be a good thing to add to my workouts to reduce muscle loss. Lastly, I needed to also throw in general aerobic conditioning to maintain cardiac health.

Finding What Works For Me

The workout for the last few years has been pretty consistent. I start every day pretty early to get it done. After I climb out of bed, I stretch for a couple of minutes, and my dog gets a belly rub while I loosen up my back. After that comes core work that includes planks on a balance board, sit-ups, leg lifts and upper body/core with rubber tubing. I use a universal gym machine for additional strengthening and a roman chair device for abdominal work and pull-ups. Cardiac/aerobic workouts rotate between an elliptical, bike and rowing machine doing intervals. The rowing machine is the most recent addition. It supposedly works 85 percent of all your muscles, and it really seems to loosen things up and get the body moving well without stressing things out. During the summer I get outdoors and bicycle. Since I have a big dog, she gets twice a day walks daily year around.

As with everyone, as we get older, we all start to gain weight. I like to eat, and often enjoy snacking on junk food. Eventually my wife convinced me that I needed to change my habits. I had to stop eating as much carbohydrates, eat more vegetables and protein, and get rid of sugary drinks and snacks. I am no where near the weight I was in college, but I think I probably have more upper body muscle and some extra gut, but I have lost a few pounds.

For most people with back pain, sleep is a huge problem. Like many, I never feel well rested. I used to be a stomach sleeper, but with my back, extension is the worst position and that is absolutely out.  Side or back sleeping is feasible. Multiple pillows are my best friends keeping my knees bent while on the back, between the legs while on the side, and adjusted under my neck to keep that in a neutral position. A good memory foam pad adds to the comfort level to help relieve pressure points. I am not a deep sleeper, and after four hours stiffness often wakes me up. Instead of fighting it, I get up and stretch for just a few seconds, and then go back to bed and I can sleep for several more hours. For me, sleeping over 7.5 hours just hurts my back, so I get moving after that amount of time. To fall asleep, I do not do work right before bed, I do some reading and try to clear my mind of anything serious.

Like everyone else who has back pain, I have to take care of my back. It is not easy to do, but it is a priority to stay healthy.  It would probably help me if I could figure out how to get more sleep at night since some experts say this is good for general health. Maybe I should try to meditate, but this would also take time, and I am not yet into that either. I may spend to much time exercising, but a large part of it is walking my dog, and someone has to do it. Eating a more healthy diet has reduced my weight slightly. To lose more weight, another major change and reduction in calorie intake would be necessary and no fun. Life is a matter of balancing multiple options. If you have pain, one of the best treatment options is a comprehensive exercise program. There will never be a magic solution for pain, it will always require lifestyle choices.

Two Reasons Why Smoking And Chronic Pain Don’t Mix

smoking chronic painAs someone who has dealt with both acute and chronic back pain, I understand why patients want to control certain aspects of their life. Chronic pain can lead to anxiety and stress, and oftentimes patients just want 5-10 minutes where they can turn their brains away from their pain and feel a little relief.

Unfortunately, some people turn to cigarettes for this relief, and while it may offer you short-term relief, it’s making it hard for you to achieve long-term relief from your chronic pain.

Smoking has been linked to cancer, but today we’re going to focus on its impact on your chronic pain. I understand where the smoker’s head is at, but here are two reasons why smoking is seriously jeopardizing your likelihood of ever solving your chronic pain problem.

Why Smoking Worsens Your Chronic Pain

Smoking does a number of different things to your body, but one specific side effect of smoking is the impairment of oxygen-rich blood to your bones and soft tissues. Think of it like watering your garden during a week-long drought. If you water your garden once during the middle of the week, the plants will get some nutrition, but they will also suffer because they need more water. If you watered your garden 3-4 times throughout the week, your plants would never be without nutrition and thus could grow and prosper.

The same thing happens when you smoke. Some oxygenated blood reaches the lower back, but more would help your body heal faster. Giving up smoking will ensure that more healthy blood reaches areas of pain, decreasing your likelihood of a flare up.

Along a similar vein, the second reason why smoking makes it harder to recover from a chronic pain situation is because smoking has been linked to fatigue and slower healing rates. Exercise is a great way to combat chronic pain, but if you are tired or unable to exercise for longer periods due to your smoking habits, your chronic pain is more likely to linger. Similarly, blood vessel restriction means that your body can’t always get the nutrients to heal as quickly. Chronic pain can easily become cyclical if smoking slows your body’s ability to heal, or if it contributes to the onset of other painful conditions, like arthritis or degenerative disc disease.

It’s easier said than done, but if you can kick the habit for a healthier one, odds are you’ll be amazed at the health improvements you’ll see. We understand the desire to find some control in what seems like an uncontrollable situation, but turning to cigarettes only makes the problem worse.

Not Every Pain Study Should Be Taken As The Truth

radiofrequency lesioning spineYears ago when first entering into the world of medicine, I thought that if a study appeared in a leading scientific journal then it would have to have been a good scientific study. As an undergraduate and in my medical student years I was never really taught how to read a paper and analyze it for its quality. Over the years more articles stopped making sense, and as one would delve into the details, it often became clear that many studies that were published were just bad research.

Often if one knew something about the subject being studied, either the conclusions were obvious or they were not clearly defined such that the answer found may not really have a true correlation to the problem. Good medical studies are often very hard to perform. If you are not very careful, the answer will be junk, even if it is published in a good medical journal. Recently, this has occurred in a major medical journal.

Insurance Sponsored Studies

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) was published with the finding that radiofrequency lesioning does not work in the lumbar region. Unfortunately, this again was a seriously flawed study and on top of everything from a research perspective, it was an insurance sponsored product. The pain societies across the world have been surprised and highly critical of the poor quality of the research and conclusions drawn in this paper.

If one has done their research, they would see that there are multiple excellent studies supporting the use of radiofrequency techniques for some specific uses. This technique has been around since the 1970’s and good equipment and understanding was established in the 1990’s. The technique is very successful for removing a nerve pathway for sensation feedback from facet joints. The science has been proven in detailed and has benefited thousands of pain sufferers. It is a common treatment for facet pain in both the neck and lumbar region and is highly successful when diagnostic blocks done first are indicative of pain relief.

This type of intervention has also been used for a number of other things including knee joint problems, sacro-iliac joint pain, and a variety of peripheral nerve problems and lumbar disc issues. All the other areas treated have had less success due to complex nerve locations. Lumping all radiofrequency treatments together and saying that they do not work is a true disservice to medicine and the patients. Further, since the JAMA is a highly regarded journal, the editors should have more closely scrutinized the study for its validity. Understanding the anatomy in the body also makes a huge difference; nerve location for most areas of the body can be highly variable from person to person and therefore it may be difficult to be successful in severing a nerve with limited ability to visualize its location.

Pain is a very complex sensation in the human body. The overall perception of the stimuli is based on the interpretation of signals in the brain. The brain may actually be receiving signals from multiple structures but interpreting them all as similar and from one location. Eliminating one piece of the signal may be sufficient to solve a pain problem. If the signals are coming from multiple locations, eliminating just one part of the signal may not change the brain’s perception of pain. The joints along the spine have very well defined sensory nerves and feedback; If the pain is from this structure it can be clearly determined and successfully treated. The discs and sacro-iliac joints have poorly defined sensory feedback, trying to eliminate the signals from these regions is still a matter of study. If the editor of JAMA used some critical thinking, the poor quality of the study would have been easily seen and the disservice of its publication could have been avoided.

Radiofrequency management of pain can be highly successful. It is definitely a science with some very technical variables that impact its success. To use this as a tool in pain management, understanding its science, capabilities, risks and benefits is necessary. It is well proven to work in certain situations. A good clinician can maximize radiofrequency effectiveness for a variety of problems but it does have limits. It is not experimental but it does have its inherent challenges in its ability to safely remove enough nerves to relieve pain. If you have pain, a good board certified pain physician can often help a patient find strategies that may lead to more successful management of your symptoms.

Doctor Killed For Not Prescribing Pain Pills To Patient

pills doctor killedLast week one of my colleagues in the Pain Medicine community was shot and killed for not writing an opioid prescription to a patient. I was sent an email from a manager who came across the information in passing, and I was shocked at the incident.

The worst part of this incident was that the victim and colleague was once a medical student and then a medical resident with me while I was in training. I have not kept in touch with him but he was an excellent doctor and a caring individual. Unfortunately, that did not matter to the person who killed him. The only thing they understood was he did not feel it was indicated to prescribe opioids, which in retrospect was clearly the right choice.

Addictions and Opioid Dependence

Pain management and treating pain has always been more than prescribing medications like opioids. Anyone who has read this blog knows my field is all about how complex treating pain has become. If you as a patient believe that the only thing you can do for your pain is taking opioids, you likely have an issue with addiction that is far beyond just managing pain.

Addiction is a psychological problem and one does irrational things to obtain whatever substance you want for the dopamine support. The things one would do are beyond societal norms and are often illegal. The problem is not only about pain; it is about how to manage the addiction. There are countless ways to manage pain and unfortunately there often is not a cure. Pain management clinics are faced with the problems of opioid use every day and one of the most important jobs we have is to find other options beyond these medications to help patients. There is a shortage of professionals who have the training and ability to work in this challenging area, and it is tragic that someone has lost their life doing the right thing.

Alternatives To Opioids

Having pain is a common occurrence in this world. Worldwide about 30 percent of the population has problems with pain on a regular basis. The use of opioids to solve pain problems has become an American solution. The United States uses 95 percent of the narcotics produced in the world, yet we are only 5 percent of the world’s population. If your doctor is saying no to opioids, there usually is a good reason, and working with a specialist to find a better solution is indicated.  Most people, once they develop significant neck or back issues, will not be pain free, but one needs to make some life changes to control the symptoms. Pain is a tough medical issue and the United States does have an opioid epidemic.  

If it is upsetting that there are not better treatments for pain, become vocal about this problem. Start with your insurance company and with your legislators and make it known you want money to be spent on paying for more treatments for pain. Money is being spent on addiction but one of the more important issues is spending money on treating the pain problem before it becomes an addiction. Pain is a grueling and depressing part of life. There are hundreds of pain professionals trying to make life better for those suffering with pain, please do not let your anger out on them.

The Benefits Of Being An “Old School” Doctor

old school doctorSince I have been in practice, medicine has changed drastically over the years. Technology and improved practice standards have given way to great changes in the care of patients. When I first started in medicine, there were no electronic charts, most notes were handwritten, and computers were not a standard part of practice. CT scans were relatively new and the MRI scan was not yet invented. Medical students were trained to do a comprehensive history and then a physical exam. Part of the history had to include a detailed account of how the condition the patient has had developed over time. Another part was a detailed exam, including looking at the patient, often with minimal clothes obscuring the body. These are very simple things – listening to a story and looking at the patient.

Unfortunately, many doctors have lost the skill to be able to evaluate a patient. Oftentimes the patient has a classic story to tell and it fits exactly to a particular medical problem. Just spending a couple of minutes listening and asking some questions will lead you to the solution, and it probably matches a common or uncommon medical problem. After many years in practice, looking and listening to a patient tells most of the story of what is wrong.  Adding a physical exam will fill in the missing parts most of the time. The fancy diagnostic studies usually are a confirmation of the problem.

Relying On Technology

Many doctors are now trained using technology. The patient history is on the computer and the first thoughts are what do the studies indicate. If the picture (imaging) shows problems, then that must be what is wrong. Treating a test or picture can be okay, but the body has a remarkable way to adapt to changes, and the true problem is usually more complex then the picture and the way to navigate to a solution is to stop and ask the patient what is wrong, then correlate to an exam and picture.

Last week being old school paid off. A new patient showed up at my office frustrated that she had years of pain and no explanation. The patient had been everywhere, including the Holy Grail –The Mayo Clinic – and still no answer on what was wrong. The patient did have a confusing history, but it was important and the details gave the clues. Watching the patient walk and looking at her legs and arms was truly remarkable. The patient was in her 20’s and was significantly weak with loss of muscle bulk.

She had a significantly abnormal exam and likely had a serious muscle and nerve disorder. If the previous physicians only took the time, they would have figured out there was a problem and could have guided the patient towards better solutions years ago. Now, hopefully the patient can get the right diagnosis and help. It may take time and a few more tests, but an answer can be found. One of the best skills a doctor can have is the ability to listen and look at a patient. It is simple, but medicine has changed and doctors are rarely paid to take the time to do the basics.