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June 14, 2018

Sick and Tired of Being Misunderstood – How to Fight Back Against Chronic Pain

Cindy Cooke, PhD, DNP, FNP-C, FAANP 

We are a nation in pain – chronic pain.  

More than 100 million adults experience chronic pain – nearly one third of all Americans. Chronic pain affects more people than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. This year 36 million people will miss work because they are in pain and 63 percent will make costly lifestyle changes, including switching jobs, hiring help and moving into a more manageable home, all because their pain is overtaking other aspects of their lives.

Chronic pain is different from acute pain. Maybe it starts with an illness or trauma, but rather than healing, pain signals are trapped in the nervous system, triggering an inescapable loop of pain that lasts for months or even years. If you suffer from regular back trouble, fibromyalgia, migraines or arthritis, you understand the intolerable world of chronic pain.

There is no question chronic pain is an epidemic in this country, but it’s more of a little-known secret in the health care world than an all out war in our communities. For many who don’t suffer, it’s hard to understand the gravity of the problem, but to put it in perspective, chronic pain costs our nation $635 billion annually – or $2,000 a year for every single person living in the U.S.

Much of the silence stems from the fact that chronic pain is complicated. It can be hard to pinpoint and treat. It is personal, and the diagnosis tends to be subjective based on the individual patient experience. Most challenging of all, the relationship between chronic pain, which sometimes requires using drugs like morphine, codeine and hydrocodone, and the parallel opioid abuse epidemic tied to these very same drugs, creates an apprehension among some providers to adequately treat patients for fear that it will lead to addiction. As if the pain isn’t enough, stigmas that confuse chronic pain sufferers with drug abusers can be just as debilitating as the symptoms themselves.

If you or someone you know is struggling to deal with chronic pain, here are four things you can do today to get the quality, personalized care you deserve.

Find a provider you trust. This may seem simple, but most of the people who are undertreated for chronic pain do not have a strong patient-provider relationship, and they really suffer as a result. Nurse practitioners are specially trained to diagnose and treat chronic pain, and they can prescribe medicines, treatments and therapies specific to each patient in all 50 states. Finding a provider who understands your condition and works with you to find relief should be your number one priority.

Be open and honest. The best provider relationships are built on an open dialogue. Share everything you can about your history and your condition. Be especially clear about any personal risk factors like drug or alcohol abuse, sleep trouble or anxiety. The more your provider knows, the better treatment they can prescribe.

Keep a pain journal. Chronic pain can be hard to describe, and sometimes patients feel like they are in constant pain, when really, their pain fluctuates or has subtle nuances that can be clues for your provider. Track how you are feeling and the range of your pain so you and your provider can address the nature and extent of your discomfort.

Explore all of the treatment options. Prescription narcotics are not the only treatment options available. In fact, only one in five patients finds opioids to be effective in treating chronic pain. Sometimes a mix of alternative treatments like yoga and massage, steroid injections or radiofrequency ablation can be more effective. Nurse practitioners are specially trained in the most up-to-date treatment options and can help you find a plan that works best for you.

Chronic pain is a real problem in this country, and it’s not talked about nearly enough. Nearly 80 percent of people with depression experience chronic pain, largely because their condition is misunderstood and their treatment is inadequate. If you or someone you know is suffering, find a nurse practitioner or other specially trained provider who understands the complexities of chronic pain and the various treatment options available. People suffering with chronic pain deserve better, and there are people who can help