Misconceptions about chronic pain can do harm to people with legitimate medical problems. Patients with chronic pain can and should be treated. Dispelling these damaging myths should raise awareness and encourage more people to seek help with a professional trained in treating chronic pain.
Chronic pain is defined as pain that persists for at least six months. It may result from an initial injury or problem, such as a herniated disk, serious infection, or surgery. There may be an ongoing cause of pain, such as arthritis, scar, or cancer. Some people suffer chronic pain in the absence of any past injury or evidence of damage to the body. Unfortunately, many people with chronic pain do not get the help they need, and the effects may be devastating, not only for the sufferer, but also for an entire family.
Chronic pain is a huge problem in terms of its human and economic toll -- it disables more people than cancer or heart disease, and the annual cost to society in terms of medical treatment, lost working days, decreased productivity and workers compensation is a staggering $100 billion a year.
Fact: Chronic pain is not “in your head.” It is a legitimate medical condition that can and should be treated. Unfortunately, the exact cause of chronic pain cannot always be found. Pain is a complex personal experience, and not all doctors have received adequate training to treat it. Pain management specialists are specifically trained to recognize and treat common and unusual conditions that cause ongoing pain. Although not all pain has an identifiable cause, there is an effective treatment for most painful conditions.
Fact: Seeking treatment has nothing to do with being weak. Many people with chronic pain feel trapped and helpless, and do not want to burden anyone else with their problem. It is important for them to realize that there is no need to suffer because effective treatments are available.
Fact: Opiates are highly effective for many types of pain and can be given safely. Physical dependence from pain relievers is different from addiction. Drug addiction is characterized by compulsive craving and use of a drug, which results in physical, psychological, and social harm to the user. An addict’s drug use continues in spite of predictable, consistent harm (self-destructive behavior.) The vast majority of people taking opiate medications for pain management do NOT become addicted. Drug dependence, where the body becomes used to the presence of a drug, can occur with the prolonged use of some pain relievers.
Fact: Most side effects are mild, tolerable, treatable, occur at the beginning of therapy, and fade with time. Common side effects include constipation, drowsiness, and dry mouth. Careful adjustment of dosages and attention to patient concerns help alleviate most side effects.
Fact: Most patients have stable dosages with time. Increases in medication dosage usually result from worsening physical or psychological status.
Fact: Most people don’t enjoy being in pain. Research shows that exaggerating about pain and malingering are actually rare. Assistance from others when pain limits activities or financial compensation for a work-related injury is appropriate for people who suffer from chronic pain.
Fact: In most cases, ignoring ongoing pain will not make it go away, and it may even get worse. It is better to seek help from a caring, experienced specialist when pain persists and becomes a problem.
Fact: Knowing one’s limits and pacing oneself can help people manage their pain. Overdoing it and pushing too hard can exacerbate pain.
Fact: Many people with chronic pain go about their business and do as much as they can, in spite of their pain. There are no outward signs of chronic pain (unlike acute pain). Just because people look comfortable does not mean they are not in pain. This misunderstanding creates much emotional distress for people with chronic pain.
Fact: With few exceptions, there is no need for anybody to live with unbearable pain. A variety of treatment options are available, but it is important to find the right doctor. Just as people see a cardiologist for heart disease or an ophthalmologist for an eye ailment, pain management specialists are trained to treat chronic pain. Patients should make sure they see a qualified pain specialist to get the treatment they need. Pain management specialists will listen carefully to the history, perform a thorough physical examination, and may refer a patient for other tests or medical consultations before coming up with a comprehensive plan for care.