An estimated 116 million adults experience chronic pain, according to a report published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, and treatment is all too often “delayed, inaccessible, or inadequate…” according to committee chair Dr. Philip Pizzo of the Stanford University School of Medicine, who co-authored the report.
The Academies’ report, Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research acknowledges that pain is more than just a physical symptom, and is not always resolved by curing the underlying disease. Chronic pain –defined as pain lasting longer than 12 weeks—is individual and “a disease in its own right;” managing it successfully requires an individualized approach that addresses all the factors that influence pain.
A review published in the journal Anesthesiology found that people who try to ignore their long-term pain may ultimately hurt more. Dr. Teresa Long, Director of the Persistent Pain Management clinic at the University of Kansas Hospital explains: “Left untreated, chronic pain often gets worse over time; the nerve pathways become more sensitive and pain sensations escalate. After a while, the feeling can end up lingering even after the actual tissue or bone has healed.”
Such is the case with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, or RSD, a neuropathic pain disorder in which pain from one area spreads to other parts of the body. One patient from the Spine & Nerve Center with RSD has trouble with his memory and sleeps only two to four hours each night. He had to retire early from his career because of the physical labor involved, and due to his need for pain medication, he can’t apply for even a very simple day job because he wouldn’t be able to pass the drug test. There is no cure at this point for RSD; one can only manage the pain. He reported feeling like his “life was over” and received little sympathy because, for several years leading up to the diagnosis, others could not be convinced that he was in pain.
Another Spine & Nerve patient, Venus Furtado, was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia – a nerve disorder characterized by widespread pain and fatigue— five years after she was involved in a serious car accident. She’s been living with chronic pain since 1990. When you have Fibromyalgia,” she said, “taking a shower can feel like being hit with ten thousand baseball bats.” Even wearing loose clothing can be painful some days. Ms. Furtado had to make wholesale life changes to accommodate her pain; she was unable to continue her career as an alcohol and drug counselor because of the mental fog that accompanies fibromyalgia (often called “Fibro-fog”). There is little relief from the pain. “Even when you’re asleep,” she said, “the body is always fighting the pain, and you wake up exhausted.”
Chronic pain’s lack of visibility often compounds the physical struggle. People suffering from chronic pain aren’t necessarily in a wheelchair or on crutches, so others don’t always sympathize or take their pain seriously. The US Pain Foundation created an organization to help counter this problem; the INvisible Project helps builds community among chronic pain sufferers and educates the public through stories and photography. It shows that the pain is real, even though you can’t see it. We at the Spine & Nerve Center invite you to participate, and more details are available here: www.invisibleproject.org.
For more information on chronic pain, please see the National Institute of Health’s fact sheet:
http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/chronic_pain/detail_chronic_pain.htm and speak with your physician about effective pain management.