Chronic pain is a problem that affects more than 100 million American citizens and 1.5 billion individuals worldwide, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine.
This problem is more prevalent than diabetes (25.8 million people in U.S.), heart disease (16.3 million) and stroke (7 million), according to both the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association.
Chronic pain can affect anyone, including men and women, young and old. It is a debilitating illness that can alter the life of both the sufferer and their loved ones.
The sufferer often feels isolated from others and may experience hopelessness due to ongoing pain and a lack of understanding from others. One pain sufferer stated, “People can understand if you are suffering from a broken leg but not from a pain that can’t be visibly seen.”
In today’s world of accelerated technological innovations and state-of-the-art medical treatments, the treatment of chronic pain is still in its infancy phase. This problem, which has existed since the beginning of written history, is in great need of new treatments, including enhancement of traditional approaches and greater research funding to develop new approaches.
Chronic pain may be the result of an ongoing or acute illness or injury, or may occur in the absence of a precipitating event. Individuals may experience physical symptoms, including headaches, backaches, neurological symptoms or joint pain. Emotional pain often manifests in the form of depression, anxiety and other mood changes.
At the same time, many studies continue to report the significant cost that chronic pain treatment and management contributes to our society: an estimated $560 to $635 billion annually, according to a recent Institute of Medicine report entitled “Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education and Research.” Des-pite the staggering costs and ongoing research, the question remains about how to best manage the debilitating symptoms of chronic pain.
When it comes to managing chronic pain, it is strongly recommended to consider a positive and individualized approach. There are new ways to treat and manage chronic pain which reinforce the use of an integrated multidisciplinary approach focusing on the physical, emotional and social aspects. An essential part of this is viewing the individual not as a passive sufferer but as an active participant in managing their pain.
Some options include:
- Participation in exercise programs are often encouraged and may include gentle yoga, Pilates, swimming or tai chi classes. These programs may be helpful because they reinforce skills that may improve balance and strengthen and support core muscles.
- Breathing exercises and various forms of relaxation, including mindfulness and meditation are suggested.
- Weight loss counseling may be helpful since pain may be exacerbated by extra weight.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is often suggested to aid with chronic pain management. The principles of CBT emphasize challenging negative beliefs while substituting them with positive affirmations and actions.
- Pharmacological treatments are considered the mainstay in pain management programs. Great controversy and ongoing regulations continue to exist concerning the use of opioids to control pain. Always follow your doctor’s instructions on how to properly take any prescription medication.
- Alternative treatments, including acupuncture, massage and chiropractic care, may provide relief.
- Many states have legalized the use of cannabis products to manage pain through the use of ointments, patches and inhalants.
There is an overwhelming need for new approaches to pain management. The goal is to set realistic goals with the purpose of not removing the individual from living their lives. This may involve developing alternative ways to participate in previously enjoyed activities. Medication may continue to be a component of the treatment plan in addition to incorporating alternative approaches.
The goal for individuals dealing with chronic pain is not to feel like “silent sufferers.” Chronic pain is not an imagined but a real illness that causes the sufferer and their loved ones both physical and emotional pain. The hope is that the individual will find ways to participate in life and find ways to manage their pain. Also, hopelessness must be replaced with hope.
The mantra for chronic pain sufferers and their loved ones should be the old adage: “Never give up.”
Marcy Shoemaker, Psy.D, is a psychologist at Abramson Center.