Manage pain – or aim to cure? Why I’m committed to pain management

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Prominent researchers, clinicians and commentators seem to suggest that aiming to help people live with their pain is aiming too low. That pain cure or at least reduction is The Thing To Do. It’s certainly got a bit of a ring to it – “I can help get rid of your pain” has a sex appeal that “I can help you live with your pain” doesn’t have. And I can recognise the appeal. Persistent pain can be a scourge for those who live with it; it can eat away at every part of life. Imagine waking up one day to find NO PAIN! Excited much?

So why do I keep hammering on about this not very glamorous, certainly very challenging and at times unrewarding area of practice?

Here’s the thing. Persistent pain is extremely common. Not only is low back pain responsible for the most years lived with disability globally (Hoy, Bain, Williams, March, Brooks, Blyth, Woolf, Vos & Buchbinder, 2012), painful disorders like osteoarthritis increase with an aging population, and post-surgical pain is a problem for ~ 12% of people undergoing hip replacement, between 20 – 50% women undergoing mastectomy, and we all recognise the pain after limb amputation (between 50 – 80%) (Reddi & Curran, 2014). In New Zealand one person in five experiences persistent pain that goes beyond three months…

And our treatments, whether they be pharmaceuticals, procedures, surgeries or even groovy new things like mirror therapy or graded motor imagery don’t guarantee complete pain relief for 100% of patients. In fact, each new wave of therapy provides some pain relief for some people some of the time. And we shouldn’t be completely surprised about this because our nociceptive system is extraordinarily complex – and needs to be active because without pain we’re not likely to live long…or prosper. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that our nociceptive system with associated thoughts, emotions and behavioural responses has built-in redundancy simply because it’s there to protect us against potential harm. And every body system has at least one disorder/disease/dysfunction, so why would we think our “pain” system is immune?

So why do I spend time learning about management when I could be focused on reducing pain?

Well one reason is my clinical orientation. I’m an occupational therapist at heart (true, warped by contact with psychologists and physiotherapists), but essentially I’m about helping people do the things they need and want to do in daily life. My tools of trade are first of all focused on helping people work out the occupations (activities) that make them feel like themselves and then helping them do those things – and secondarily, and as a result of this focus, on helping people deal with their pain experience. Sometimes the latter involves helping people develop awareness of exactly how much or how little of their body and life is taken up with pain, helping them develop “wiggle room” so they can feel they have a little more space to be who they are, helping them find new ways to do those occupations that make them feel like themselves so the pain doesn’t take up quite so much room in their sense of self. Sometimes I do focus on obvious ways that people respond to their experience that may actually be making that experience much more unpleasant than it needs to be.

Another reason for me is that with a primary focus on pain reduction, we can forget the reason people want pain reduced – which is to go on and live life. And when we’re unsuccessful at reducing pain – where do those people go for help? What does it feel like to seem to “fail” a treatment again? and again? Who helps those people have good quality of life when they feel demoralised, the treatment options are exhausted and the clinicians who so desperately want to help them have no more ideas?

And as I mentioned above – there are no absolute cures for most forms of persistent pain. Nothing in my reading of the research around the world suggests that researchers have hit upon a jackpot and found a way to eliminate persistent pain 100%. What that means is there are likely to be people who will never experience complete relief from their pain. And others for whom the treatment is unavailable because of cost, side effects, intrusion on life, or because the treatment violates their values.

And because there are people who need to live with persistent pain until we have a “universal cure”, researchers and clinicians still need to refine and innovate the pain management strategies that will need to be used.

I’m not the person to make the decision about whether pain reduction or pain management is the best option. That’s not my job as a clinician or a researcher – I’m there to help people weigh up the costs and the benefits of treatments, and examine how best we can help those who can’t get rid of their pain. The thing is: if clinicians don’t know that there are viable ways of living well with pain (or they reject these as inferior or second class in comparison with pain reduction or elimination) how will they support their patients to make their own decisions? Or will they neglect to offer the approaches they don’t know about? And what kind of a choice is that?

Hoy, D., C. Bain, G. Williams, L. March, P. Brooks, F. Blyth, A. Woolf, T. Vos and R. Buchbinder (2012). A systematic review of the global prevalence of low back pain. Arthritis & Rheumatology 64(6): 2028-2037.

Reddi, D., & Curran, N. (2014). Chronic pain after surgery: pathophysiology, risk factors and prevention. Postgraduate medical journal, 90(1062), 222-227.
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