Pain Killers

Help may be at hand, if you're willing to look beyond your family doc.

Vicki O'Brien

From the June 2003 issue
Jeremy Maude

Welcome to the nightmare that is chronic pain. You now have a potential life partner that gnaws, twists, stabs, throbs or burns - seeking attention like a small demonic child tugging at your sleeve. It may defy description or elude capture on X-ray film. In time, it may take over your life: interrupting sleep, sabotaging relationships, stealing your independence. You might dull its nagging presence with drugs. But pain is patient. It waits for the fog to lift and then chews anew. "I'm still he-e-e-re."

With help you can live with chronic pain. Or you can give up and become an angry, powerless zombie. Life goes on without you; so what? You'll want to be alone.

And sometimes, when it's at its worst, you'll want to die.

Chronic pain is a silent epidemic affecting some 10 million Canadians. It ranges from mildly debilitating to completely disabling and is often compounded by the stress of dealing with skeptical medical professionals and reticent insurers. Many severe sufferers can't work, resulting in lost productivity for employers, depleted individual savings and broken families. Some sufferers invest heavily in private treatment. Others bounce from doctor to doctor, trying everything from risky surgery to psychic healing in search of a magic bullet.

Why do some people suffer so much? Although there are many types of chronic pain and many pain levels, the universe of pain shares some common issues. We have a better chance of recovering from musculoskeletal injury or damage to our nervous system if treated early. But acute becomes sub-acute, sub-acute becomes chronic while you wait to see a specialist, have ultrasound, MRI or CT scans or surgery.
Most family doctors know little about chronic pain and offer little in a 10-minute visit. Although some GPs take a special interest in pain treatment, many prefer not to deal with often-difficult patients. Whether justified or not, pain patients frequently say they're angry and frustrated with the cursory treatment they receive from physicians.

There's also a lot of needless suffering. Some people won't take medication for fear they'll become a vegetable or an addict. The big guns in today's pain arsenal are the narcotics (benignly known in medical circles as 'opiods') derived from morphine or codeine. However, physicians often refuse to prescribe them in sufficient quantities because of addiction concerns.

It's also true that with the exception of cancer-related pain, most people won't get complete relief with narcotics. These drugs just 'take the edge off', leaving you, the patient, feeling drowsy and disoriented. Carefully monitored, long-acting narcotics will always have a role to play; however, experts agree it's better to learn alternative pain management techniques.

But where do you find those? When searching for answers to chronic pain, check out websites, chronic pain associations, pain clinics and support groups. As MSP does not cover most private clinics, which require a physician's referral, do your homework before talking to your GP. In the end, finding pain relief is like finding religion: it's an intensely personal thing and requires a lot of faith.


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