Millions of people deal with chronic pain on a regular basis — chronic pain sufferers outnumber those with cancer, heart disease, and diabetes all combined. Billions of prescriptions for pain medication are written each year, yet chronic pain remains one of the least manageable conditions there is.
There are many reasons for this. One is that pain isn’t well understood by science and the medical community. Another is that pain is very personal, and is experienced differently by each individual person. There is no one size fits all description or prescription for pain.
The problem with the current model of pain management
Pain is often minimized, both by patients and by healthcare providers. Patients may meet with a negative attitude, and feel that they need to downplay their symptoms or risk being labeled a “difficult” patient. On the provider side, the current prescription drug abuse hysteria trains physicians to view chronic pain sufferers as potential drug abusers. Conversely, other providers, faced with the frustrating task of treating this complex, little-understood, and seemingly insurmountable problem, may be too quick on the draw with the prescription pad and so ignore other options.
The current medical model says that pain is best treated with painkillers. A prescription is often the first option, and if one drug doesn’t work a stronger one may be prescribed. But true pain management is a partnership, not a prescription. Effective pain management takes time, empathy, and a willingness to “think outside the box” of current practice. It requires patients to be more than compliant receivers of care—instead they must be willing to be 100% involved. It asks providers to spend more than five minutes of their time with patients, to truly listen to them and to consider what they have to say rather than viewing them as potential addicts.
What patients can do to become partners
Pain is difficult—if not impossible—to measure, and everyone experiences pain differently. This can make it difficult to convey just how much and what kind of pain you’re having, and this is especially true when you don’t have any obvious injury you can point to as the cause. Since no one else can feel your pain, clear communication is probably the most important tool you have.
Before you can describe your pain you must know it intimately. It’s not enough to know where it hurts and how bad; small details can be important when it comes to management. Is it worse at a certain time of day? Do certain activities bring it on? Is it always the same type of pain, or does it change? What, if anything, makes it better?
Paying attention and “mapping” your pain to answer these and other questions can give your healthcare provider a much deeper picture of what’s going on. Consider keeping a pain journal, where you make note of anything and everything to do with your pain can be an invaluable tool. It’s also a good place to write down any questions you may have. Then you can walk into your appointment fully aware and ready to be an active partner.
What providers can do
One of the most important things providers can do is to be active listeners. Listen carefully, ask questions, and consider the answers from an unbiased point of view. If your client is reluctant to tell you he’s considering acupuncture or another complementary therapy because he’s afraid of your judgement, then it’s not a true partnership and the patient is the one who will suffer.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, and do be willing to network with other providers. Real pain management is often the result of a combination of different approaches. Pain patients may be seeing a medical doctor, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, and other providers all at the same time. Open communication between all parties involved can give everyone, including the patient, a better picture of what’s working and what isn’t and the best way forward.
Chronic pain destroys lives. Pain management requires quality communication on the part of both parties. It asks that they become partners, rather than merely provider and patient, both committed to finding the unique solution to what is a very individual problem.