If you suffer from chronic pain, you know just how debilitating it can be and how much it can impact most aspects of daily living. Severe pain can significantly interfere with a person’s quality of life, turning simple daily tasks into seemingly impossible feats. Over 100 million Americans are dealing with some form of chronic pain, and it rises to the top as the No. 1 cause of disability among adults in the U.S. Chronic pain is defined as any pain lasting longer than three to six months; aside from the physical toll it can take on the body in terms of discomfort and loss of productivity, it can also take an emotional, physiologic and cognitive toll.
One common and well-known treatment for chronic pain is opioid medication, and the use of these pain-killing drugs has skyrocketed over the last decade. Opioid medications suppress the body’s perception of pain by blocking signals between the brain and the nervous system. However, over time these medications can also be extremely addictive, and if used long-term, they can lead to tolerance – meaning the person using the medication needs more of it to achieve relief. Aside from tolerance, side effects of these medications include fatigue, drowsiness and loss of motivation, and some patients taking them find themselves stuck in addiction with a serious strain on their productivity, employment status and relationships.
The good news is that mainstream medicine is now embracing a wider variety of treatments than ever before. Physicians who specialize in treating chronic pain now recognize that it’s not merely a sensation, like vision or touch, but rather that chronic pain is strongly influenced by the ways in which the brain processes the pain signals. There areother options, and it’s up to us as physicians to be knowledgeable about alternatives for the long-term benefit of our patients. Sometimes these options can include short-term medication in an acute period of pain, but medication alone is not – and should not be – a blanket treatment recommendation for every patient.