As a physician anesthesiologist, I know how challenging it can be to treat patients who are in pain. For most people, pain is temporary. But for more than 100 million Americans, there is no end to pain.
Chronic pain can be broad or focused, dull or sharp, distracting or excruciating, and in many cases, debilitating.
Your likelihood of experiencing chronic pain increases with age. Gender can also influence how much pain you have. In general, women report having more pain than men.
The Serious Effects of Pain
Living with chronic pain can affect your life in many ways:
Mental health changes. According to a 2006 survey from the American Academy of Pain Medicine, almost two-thirds of people living with chronic pain have reported a decrease in overall happiness and 77 percent reported feeling depressed.
Increased fatigue. Pain can affect your daily functioning, resulting in decreased concentration, diminished energy levels, and difficulty falling or staying asleep.
Decreased job performance. Chronic pain costs the U.S. more than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Health economists estimate that the cost of chronic pain may be as high as $635 billion a year, according to a report published in the Journal of Pain. We can only guess how many people have been limited in their professional advancement because of pain.
Which Doctor Is Best at Treating Pain?
If you are experiencing pain, your first stop should be to visit your primary care physician. A 2010 analysis of a national medical database found that 13 percent of all doctors visits were to discuss pain. Of these visits, 45 percent were at a primary care physician's office. Less than 1 percent of those surveyed sought help from a specialized pain physician.
Specialized pain physicians are underused by patients, probably because the specialty is relatively new and people don't know about it. These physicians are trained to treat difficult pain conditions using the most advanced treatments.
I like to compare pain physicians to football players. The goal of all of these doctors is the same — to relieve pain — but the role they play varies:
Anesthesiologists spend four years of their training managing anesthesia and pain control in surgical patients. Most pain specialists are anesthesiologists, and they can offer a full array of pain treatments.
Neurologists focus on targeting the neural, or nerve, aspects of pain. Treatments include medications and procedures to treat nerve-related pain.
Physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians focus on relieving pain and improving their patients' day-to-day functioning via physical therapy and physical reconditioning.
The Future of Pain Treatment
Recently, the American Society of Anesthesiologists analyzed dozens of peer-reviewed medical journals from the past year to create its first Women’s Pain Update. Highlights from the report include:
Success with alternative pain-relief methods such as music, yoga, and rose oil.
Breast cancer research that found the type of anesthesia used during breast cancer surgery can affect how quickly and comfortably you recover.
New research has also led to the development of medications that can decrease nerve irritation and depression caused by pain. Similarly, there are several new procedures that can treat pain.
For example, pain specialists can use X-ray or ultrasound imaging guidance to provide relief through steroid injections that target specific nerves and areas of the spinal cord. The procedure is fairly low risk when administered by a physician specifically trained in interventional pain treatments. All three major pain societies, the American Pain Society, the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, and the American Academy of Neurology, state that epidural steroid injections are best suited for those with a pinched or inflamed nerve root (also called radiculopathy).
However, we still have a lot to learn about steroid procedures. Studies have shown that any type of epidural injection — including saline — can relieve pain. In fact, such injections provide twice the pain relief of intramuscular steroid injections, without the associated risks.
Don't resign yourself to a life in pain. If you are one of the millions of people lacking an effective remedy for your pain, a trained pain medicine physician may be able to help you achieve your pain management goals.