Murray J. McAllister, PsyD
Murray J. McAllister, PsyD, is the editor and founder of the Institute for Chronic Pain (ICP). The ICP is an educational and public policy think tank. Its mission is to lead the field in making pain management more empirically supported. Additionally, the ICP provides Academic quality information on chronic pain that is approachable to patients and their families. Dr. McAllister is also the clinical director of pain services for Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (CKRI), part of Allina Health, in Minneapolis, MN. Among other services, CKRI provides chronic pain rehabilitation services on a residential and outpatient basis.
Chronic pain rehabilitation programs are a traditional and effective treatment for chronic pain. Such programs are based on cognitive-behavioral principles that aim to change how you experience pain. By doing so, chronic pain rehabilitation programs help you to a) reduce pain and b) return to meaningful life activities even though some level of pain may persist. In other words, by participating in chronic pain rehabilitation, you change your relationship to chronic pain. You no longer perceive pain as an alarming and disabling condition, but develop the know-how to understand your pain as a benign condition that no longer needs to disrupt or prevent your daily life activities.
Wouldn’t it be good to become so competent at dealing with persistent pain that you no longer are disabled by it?
The most vexing of all questions in the debate over long-term opioid management for pain is subtle, difficult to articulate, and rarely considered. It lies at the heart of whether and how we maintain patients with severe pain on long-term opioids or whether we help them learn to self-manage it instead.
This most vexing of questions involves how we understand the nature of pain severity and its relationship to its degree of tolerability in the long-term opioid management patient. For depending on how we understand the intolerability of severe pain, it leads to contradictory treatment considerations among well-meaning, competent patients and providers, and even within the larger society.
A common complaint among people with chronic pain is that their pain has come to occupy too much of everyone’s time, attention or energy. In other words, it can sometimes feel like their pain is the only thing anyone ever talks to them about – that they’ve become almost synonymous with their pain.
We call it pain talk. Pain talk is the persistent verbal focus of everyone’s attention on the pain of someone with persistent pain.
One of the more long-standing recommendations of chronic pain rehabilitation is to reduce pain behaviors. It’s one of the ways that people with persistent pain can learn to cope better with pain. Let’s review how to do it.
This past summer, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed into law an omnibus health and human services budget bill and in so doing he marked a significant milestone in the recent history of chronic pain management. The bill contained language, introduced by State Representative Deb Kiel and State Senator Jim Abler, authorizing the trial of a new payment arrangement through Medical Assistance, which makes it possible for state recipients of the public health insurance to receive care within an interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation program.
I am nearing the end of a forty-five minute initial evaluation for our interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation clinic and my patient is an amiable woman in her late forties from the suburbs. She drove a minivan to the clinic and attends the evaluation while her three children are at school for the day. Her primary care provider had referred her to us because of her chronic and disabling low back pain, which over the years had become progressively worse and more widespread.
Opioids, or narcotic pain medications, are commonly thought of as powerful pain relievers. Patients frequently request them and healthcare providers often prescribe them for back pain because they think that opioids are the most effective pain reliving treatment. Popular media and others in society also commonly think that without opioids patients will suffer intolerable or “intractable” back pain. The implication is that, again, opioids are the most powerful and effective pain reliever.
But are they the most effective pain relieving treatment for back pain?
Exercise, of course, is good for you. Activity is good for you too. Both are helpful for those with chronic pain. Yet, they are different. They are not an equal substitute for the other. Let’s explain.
Patients and healthcare providers commonly think of pain as a symptom of an underlying injury or illness. Say, for example, you hurt your low back while lifting. Perhaps, you’ve injured a muscle or ligament, or perhaps it’s an injury to the spine, like a disc bulge or herniation. Either way, you now have pain and the pain is the symptom of the injury. The same might be true for any health condition that causes pain, particularly when it first starts.