Medically, we understand pain as a sensory experience beyond the mechanical purpose of nociception (brain signals warning us of sources of danger). Where nociception is the process by which our body interprets danger, pain is the experience surrounding it – including duration and intensity. While natural, there are times and conditions wherein pain is a symptom that needs to be addressed, which can and does bring detriment to a patient’s quality of life and causes needless suffering.
Certain forms of pain are best treated by doing very little, if not nothing. Simple over-the-counter painkillers such as anti-inflammatory drugs and acetaminophen (paracetamol) are often enough to reduce pain, as well as speed up the healing process. But there are cases where pain becomes a condition in and of itself and requires a more complicated and holistic treatment approach. This is where pain management becomes necessary.
Why Is Pain Management Necessary?
Chronic pain or pain recurring for more than three to six months (depending on the origin and nature of the pain) can greatly affect how we lead our lives. It serves no real biological purpose, persists long after our tissue has healed, and continues to plague millions of Americans as they try to move on from physical trauma. Over 50 million US adults struggle with chronic pain on a daily or near-daily basis.
At the same time, 20 million reportedly suffer from high-impact chronic pain (interfering with work and life most days). When a person is diagnosed with a chronic pain condition, much of their day-to-day revolves around finding ways to cope with the pain and function despite it. It can be both physically and emotionally exhausting and socially consuming. Pain management is the long-term medical treatment of chronic pain to reduce both the pain itself and its impact on a patient’s life.
Because chronic pain comes in many shapes and forms, can occur as a primary or secondary condition, and is generally complex to treat (with numerous comorbidities), pain management also encompasses a long list of treatments, therapeutic practices, and alternative medicines, each working together in a patient’s individualized treatment plan.
More than just “seeing what works,” pain management relies on the cooperation of multiple different specialists in both diagnosing and treating a patient’s pain via a pain clinic. Pain clinics specialize in chronic pain conditions and employ doctors and medical professionals from different specialties.
What Is Effective Pain Management?
Effective pain management:
- Prioritizes good communication. Communication is everything when treating pain. Patients need to feel safe and heard throughout the treatment process and need to openly and honestly communicate with pain specialists as their pain levels are assessed to change treatments accurately.
- Is holistic. This means that effective pain management utilizes the experience and expertise of multiple different specialists and makes use of multiple modalities (treatments) with multiple angles of treatment (physical, psychological, and social).
- Is individualized. Though treatment plans can be similar, no two treatment plans are really totally alike. An effective treatment plan is adjusted to account for a person’s unique needs and circumstances.
It may take time to find a pain management clinic you’re comfortable with. Aside from experience and reputation, it’s important to feel safe in the hands of your medical team. Pain management can take a long time, and you will be working with these people for weeks, months, and sometimes even years to come, whether over long periods or intermittently, as the pain spikes and recurs. Understanding what might lie ahead of you also helps. Most pain management plans can be broken down into individual modalities. These include:
Pain medications refer to drugs that largely relieve pain through analgesic functions or address biological or neurological processes. Not all of the medications used during pain management are painkillers. Types of medications used for the treatment and management of chronic pain include:
- Non-opioid painkillers (acetaminophen and NSAIDs)
- Muscle relaxants
- Anti-anxiety drugs
While the most powerful medical tool in a doctor’s arsenal tends to be a strong opioid, there are non-opioid painkillers, as well as non-analgesic medications for pain, such as muscle relaxants and antidepressants.
Non-invasive interventions include corticosteroid treatments, temporary and permanent nerve blocks, and minor surgical interventions designed to reduce or address pain via injection, stimulation, the installation of a pain pump, and other methods. These interventions are more drastic than a purely pharmacological plan. They serve as very powerful and effective tools in treating pain both in the short and long-term, with fewer risks than major surgery.
Occupational and physical therapy relies on helping patients reduce pain throughout their day-to-day, in life, and at work, via ergonomic lessons, targeted physical training, the use of various tools to help ease or reduce pain during movement and otherwise (such as back braces and walkers), and more. Rehabilitative therapies play a key role in the long-term treatment of pain by helping patients cope physically and adjust to their condition.
As the efficacy of antidepressants helps prove, the psychological impact of pain is not to be understated and often serves to exacerbate it. Both anxiety and depression can have a marked impact on pain thresholds and severity, and they are common comorbidities for adults struggling with chronic pain. Both medication and talk therapy can help patients reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, identify healthy coping mechanisms, learn to seek help from their social support network, and reduce overall pain levels.
Complementary Practices and Lifestyle Changes
Pain management plans may also include complementary alternative medicine, from acupuncture to herbal infusions, and lifestyle adjustments that may help reduce pain in the long term, including better diet, proper hydration, herbal supplements, and regular exercise.
When Should I Visit a Pain Management Clinic?
It would be best to consider paying a visit to a pain clinic when you feel you need to ask the question. Pain specialists don’t dictate pain management plans without a thorough examination of the patient – and would be best equipped to tell you whether your pain would need to be managed through a professional plan or if your condition can be resolved elsewhere.
If you feel ready to make an appointment at a pain clinic, be sure to prepare a few questions to learn more about how the clinic will operate, including their opinions on opioid treatment, whom they would be working and communicating with, how often their pain would be reassessed throughout the treatment process, and what they should prepare themselves for in terms of communicating with and waiting on medical insurance companies.