5 Things People With Chronic Pain Want You To Know

chronic pain knowLiving with chronic pain is difficult enough before you add in the stigma you have to deal with from other people. Hopefully your friends and family members are sympathetic to your condition, but even they don’t fully understand what you’re going through. Today, we want to share five things that people with chronic pain want you to know about their condition.

What We Want You To Know

Here are five things that patients with chronic conditions wish others knew about their condition.

We don’t want to be in pain

This may sound obvious, but sometimes people think individuals are just playing up their pain to get attention. Trust me, they’d trade all the attention in the world if they could live a pain free life. If they are talking about their pain, it’s because they want you to try and understand what they’re going through, not because they are craving attention.

Just because we don’t show it, doesn’t mean we’re not in pain

We put on a brave face and go about our daily life, but just because we’re smiling doesn’t mean we’re not in pain. Chronic pain patients often try to mask their pain because they don’t want to be seen as weak or injured, and some are great at hiding their pain. But that doesn’t mean we don’t feel it with each step.

Keep reaching out

It’s impossible to predict when a flareup is going to occur, so if we say we can’t make it out to the mall or we cancel on movie plans at the last minute, we’re not trying to avoid you. We’re just dealing with a lot of pain and we’d be miserable, but we love that you’re reaching out. Keep texting and calling us, because we really do want to hang out. Don’t assume that we’re intentionally trying to avoid you, because we’re not.

We’re not in it for the drugs

We don’t want to be taking pain pills, but sometimes they are the only thing that makes it bearable to get through our physical therapy session. We’re not just popping pills and hoping the problem gets better, we’re actively working towards finding a solution through a combination of therapy techniques.

We’re not lazy

What’s easy for some is a huge burden to others. When chronic pain is at it’s worst, even getting out of bed in the morning can be difficult. Again, we’d trade anything for the chance to live without constant pain, but life doesn’t work like that. We’re not using chronic pain as a way to get out of work or doing chores. We’re trying our best, even if it doesn’t look like it.

Cutting Back On Opioids Could Reduce Pain

opioids cutting backIt may sound counterintuitive, but new research suggests that reducing long-term opioid intake could actually lead to lower pain levels in patients with chronic pain.

More than 10 million Americans are currently prescribed a long-term opioid to deal with a chronic pain condition. The number of people who get these prescriptions continues to grow, and not surprisingly so too do opioid overdose deaths. Used correctly, opioids can work wonders for individuals who have been struggling to find a way to take control of their chronic pain, but far too often they are overprescribed and knowingly or unknowingly abused.

Long-term opioids should only continue to be used if you’re still seeking active treatment options to address the painful condition. Since opioids are a passive treatment option, they are only masking the pain, and they aren’t actively working to correct the problem. They can work wonders when paired with active solutions like physical therapy or exercise because it can lessen pain during these crucial strengthening times, but if you’re not actively working towards a solution, long-term opioids are just dulling the pain while your body begins to crave larger doses of the drug to be effective, which can lead patients down the path of addiction.

Reducing Long-Term Opioid Intake

Researchers conducted a systematic review of 67 published studies in order to determine the effects of discontinuing long-term opioid therapy for patients with chronic pain conditions. Although they admit that the overall quality of evidence was not superb, they found an association between long-term opioid dose reduction and improvements in pain, function and quality of life.

“It’s counterintuitive that pain and well-being could be improved when you decrease pain medication…but patients felt better when dosages were reduced,” said Dr. Erin Krebs, medical director of the Women Veterans Comprehensive Health Center, part of the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System, and an author of the study.

However, study authors echoed what we’ve been saying in this blog, that long-term opioid reduction shouldn’t be done by itself. It should be reduced with the oversight of a licensed physician and paired with other multidisciplinary approaches and behavioral interventions to continue actively pursuing pain reduction and function improvement. Hopefully future studies can take a closer look at this idea and provide some clearer solutions with stronger evidence so we can continue doing everything in our power to help patients fight back against their chronic pain conditions.

Could We Be Pain Free In The Future?

mouse vaccine painAlthough not as much money is being spent on understanding pain as doctors would like, there is still some promising research taking place throughout the world. For example, new research published in Nature Neuroscience took a closer look at re-wiring the brain’s transmitters when it mistakenly interprets signals as pain.

The research began by looking at mice who had peripheral nerve damage and chronic pain from a previous leg surgery. In these mice, a broken circuit in the pain-processing region of the brain caused hyperactivity that led to pain for more than a month. Scientists realized that the peripheral nerve damage deactivated a set of interconnected brain cells, called somatostatin (SOM), which usually work to lessen pain signals.

Fixing The Broken Circuit

Researchers were interested in learning if this connection could be fixed, and if it could, how we’d go about repairing it. One method they tried was to manually activate the SOM interneurons, and they found that this led to a significant decrease in the development of chronic pain.

“Our findings suggest that manipulating interneuron activity after peripheral nerve injury could be an important avenue for the prevention of pyramidal neuron over-excitation and the transition from acute postoperative pain to chronic centralized pain,” the authors, led by neuroscientist Guang Yang at New York University School of Medicine, conclude. They believe future drug therapies or magnetic brain stimulation could mend these SOM interneuron connections and prevent pain signals from misfiring.

The authors are cautiously optimistic, but they realize that there is a big difference in the brains of mice and the brains of humans. The study needs to be repeated and the results verified before any similar testing in humans could take place, but it’s a start.

“Our study provides, to our knowledge, the first direct evidence that impaired SOM cell activity is involved in the development of neuropathic pain,” the researchers wrote.

They hope to confirm their results and examine whether manipulating other cells could play a role in the reduction of chronic pain. If they can, we may have specific cells in which to base our intervention techniques. This is exciting.

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.

JAMA’s Approach To Chronic Pain Is Misguided

chronic pain opioidsEvery week, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) publishes short articles that address important topics in medicine. Last week one of the articles was on taking care of chronic pain patients in primary care medical practices.

In the era of opioid abuse, one would think educating primary care physicians on pain would be beneficial. This article unfortunately was a catastrophe. The information on addiction was wrong and the treatment of pain was overly simplistic.

Understanding Opioid Addiction

Opioid addiction is a significant issue today. Yearly over 30,000 people die due to opioid-related incidents. This is nearly as many people as those who die in automobile accidents. However, addiction is an illness in itself, and of all the people who use opioids, only a small percentage of about 5-7 percent at most ever become addicted. Addiction to opioids is no different then other addictions and requires psychological intervention and medical detoxification.

Chronic pain is a very complex disease, and has many causes. There often is not a single problem involved and finding solutions to improve the issues present takes a deep medical understanding of many different fields. One must be able to identify and understand all the medical problems contributing to pain. Having a solid knowledge of rheumatology, internal medicine, orthopedics, neurology, and musculoskeletal medicine are just a few of the skills needed in pain medicine. In reality, it does not matter how people progress to a chronic pain condition, what matters is that 1/3 of the adult population has problems with chronic pain.

The article in JAMA recommends that primary care physicians need to see the pain patients frequently, with shared decision making, compassionate care, promoting shared decision making, and use an interdisciplinary approach. They should work with motivational interviewing, and have physical therapists and psychologists in the office to work with them and the patients.

This article was written by physicians from the University of Michigan, and pardon my language, is crap. From experience, these physicians are in academics and they are tremendously sheltered from the pressures of most practice situations. Most primary care physicians have 15 minutes at the most to see a patient and they do not have any other support like psychologists in their practice or physical therapy. At the University of Michigan, pain patients are also referred out to the Physical Medicine physicians. The advice in this article is of extremely low use.

What We Should Be Doing

Primary care physicians need far more practical advice on management of chronic pain. First off, chronic pain is not a single medical condition but most commonly it is the response to multiple medical problems. The role of primary care medicine is, more importantly, to identify that there is a problem and help quarterback and guide a patient to the correct treating physicians. With limited time for each visit, send the patient to experts in pain management such as a physical medicine physician who actually has the appropriate training and resources to treat complex problems.

Secondly, avoid the quick fix by trying to hand out medication, especially opioids and many of the other drugs on the market since developing a comprehensive management strategy is necessary. Again this type of management is not really primary care and working with a specialist is more productive. Once a specialist has developed a successful treatment approach, be willing to take over and maintain the program. Third, realize pain is extremely complex, often with no cure, and the goal of treatment is to improve function and make the symptoms more manageable. The best advice for primary care physicians is to learn who are the knowledgeable and successful pain management experts in your area and use their expertise to help manage these complex patients.