More than 100 million people in the United States suffer from chronic pain. This exceeds the number of people afflicted by diabetes, coronary heart disease, and cancer combined. Many of those afflicted belong to vulnerable populations with scanty access to medical care and knowledge.
According to Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research, it has been estimated that the societal cost of pain approximates $560-$635 billion a year, averaging a massive $2,000 per capita of the U.S. population.
Causes of chronic pain
Chronic pain differs from acute pain in its long-term nature that could last days, weeks, months, or even years. It can arise from a variety of sources. The most common form of pain is back pain, followed by migraines, neck pain, and facial pain. Back pain afflicts more than 26 million people between the ages of 20 and 64.
Many patients suffering from serious chronic diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and others, endure pain as part of their everyday existence.
Significant impact on quality of life
Pain can be debilitating. An American Pain Foundation survey reported 51 percent respondents to say that they had little or no control over their pain, with almost 60% reporting a reduction in quality of life and overall well-being because of the stressor.
Respondents also reported the following symptoms that significantly affected their quality of life and ability to function: depression (77%), trouble concentrating (70%), lowered energy levels (74%), and inability to sleep (86%).
The painkiller conundrum
It is not surprising, then, that narcotic painkillers are the most popularly prescribed family of drugs in the market today. As we know, these have probably caused more harm than good.
According to the CDC, 300 million painkiller prescriptions are written every year. Besides the side effects of these drugs in legitimate cases of chronic pain, the bigger problem associated with painkillers lies in their rampant abuse. Painkiller prescriptions quadrupled between 1999 and 2010 because of systematic abuse. Worse yet, these provide an easy gateway for abusers to get addicted to harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
Alternative treatments for pain
Many alternative methods for pain management exist that can provide relief that can minimize, or even eliminate, dependence on pain medication. Like most alternative therapies, the effectiveness of these methods can vary from person to person, and may be dependent on the skills of the therapist or coach. Also, these methods usually require long-term maintenance care.
Examples of these methods include acupuncture, aromatherapy, chiropractic care, hypnotherapy, massage therapy, relaxation therapy, tai chi, meditation, and yoga.
A recent study conducted by Emily Hurstak and Margot Kushel, UCSF and the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital reviewed strategies some community health centers use as pain management treatment options. In addition to non-opioid methods mentioned above, strategies include:
- Shared medical appointments (also called group medical visits) allowing providers to deliver multidisciplinary pain treatment while emphasizing community building and self-management skills.
- Team-based models integrating medical care, mental health, and substance use treatment services for chronic pain.
- Buprenorphine, available for both addiction treatment and chronic pain, is a safer alternative than opioids for patients at risk of negative outcomes from high-dose, long-term opioid use.
Embracing preventive measures can also be effective in reducing the levels of pain experienced by a patient. These include regular aerobic, stretching, and muscle strengthening exercises, healthy nutrition, supplementation, maintaining a healthy basal metabolic index (BMI), and experiencing quality sleep. These methods have the potential to improve quality of life and reduce overall stress.
Unfortunately, in chronic conditions, there are no easy solutions to pain management. What seems like the easy solution – taking a pill – can evolve into a nightmare very quickly. Embracing alternative treatments for pain might seem the harder path to take, but in the long run has the potential for improving quality of life and tolerance to pain, if not curing it.