How To Curb the Chronic Pain Epidemic With Exponential Technology

Dr. Anita Gupta on Chronic Pain Treatment

As a physician anesthesiologist and pharmacist, it can be challenging to treat patients living with a chronic pain diagnosis. For most people, pain is temporary and can resolve quickly. But for more than 100 million Americans, there is no end to pain. Chronic pain can be debilitating and oftentimes varies from being broad or focused, dull or sharp, distracting or excruciating.

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So many factors increase the likelihood of experiencing chronic pain, especially if you are older or female. In general, women report having more pain than men.

The Serious Effects of Pain

Coping with chronic pain and spending each day in pain can affect your life in many ways. According to a 2006 survey from the American Academy of Pain Medicine, almost two-thirds of people living with chronic pain have reported a decrease in overall happiness and 77 percent reported feeling depressed. Pain can affect your daily functioning, resulting in decreased concentration, diminished energy levels, and difficulty falling or staying asleep. Chronic pain costs the U.S. more than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined. Health economists estimate that the cost of chronic pain may be as high as $635 billion a year, according to a report published in the Journal of Pain. We can only guess how many people have been limited in their professional advancement because of pain.

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Future of Pain Treatments

New research has also led to the development of medications that can decrease nerve irritation and depression caused by pain. Some of these new medications are being designed using nanotechnology or medications that may reverse an opioid overdose such as naloxone. With the advent of new wearable technology and smartphones, there are endless options for individuals to monitor their health and function when living with chronic pain. Moreover, the increasing use of genetic testing for personalized medicine may make crafting an effective pain regimen easier for doctors. One of the most promising research areas involves harvesting stem cells from a patient’s bone marrow and injecting them into an area, such as the lower back, that has become painful because tissue has deteriorated. The hope is that the stem cells will build new, healthy tissue and relieve pain for good.

Similarly, there are several new procedures that can treat pain. One such treatment is radiofrequency (RF) ablation, which involves heating a tiny area of nerve tissue that short circuits pain signals. Using CT imaging as a guide, the pain medicine specialist inserts a needle into the nerve responsible for the pain and zaps it using an electric current created by radio waves. The relief can last for up to one year. Under X-ray guidance, pain medicine physicians can inject numbing medication that blocks or dampens pain, and might even stop chronic pain from developing. The location of the injection depends on the source and type of pain. Relief may require a series of injections and may need to be repeated.

Tanscutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) can provide short-term pain relief, especially for various types of muscle pain, by sending low voltage electric signals from a small device to the painful area through pads attached to the skin, which may stimulate the production of “feel good” endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. When other methods fail, a pain medicine specialist might recommend spinal cord stimulation (SCS), which uses a pacemaker-like device that replaces the pain with a more tolerable sensation, typically a tingling or massage-like feeling. This technique can help with back pain as well as neuropathy – nerve damage in the legs that causes numbness and pain. Special pumps can be implanted that allow the patient to push a button and deliver local anesthetics, narcotics and other pain medications to the spinal cord. This can bring relief while avoiding the side effects that often come with taking these drugs by mouth. These spinal drug pumps are most often used by people with cancer pain, but also by patients with other types of pain who have side effects when taking medication.

For more information on these new technologies and to find the right pain medicine specialist, please visit www.ASAHQ.org/WhenSecondsCount. Don’t resign yourself to a life in pain. If you are one of the millions of people lacking an effective remedy for your pain, a trained pain medicine specialist may be able to help you achieve your pain management goals.

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