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The other day I heard someone make the claim that psychological interventions for persistent, or chronic, pain are at best modestly effective. She went on to rhetorically ask why the field should promote such therapies when the empirical support for them is so unimpressive?
I’ve heard such statements countless times before.
It would be an important point if the field of pain management was filled with effective therapies. Pain management has many offerings in terms of therapies and procedures and, were it the case that these offerings were highly effective, it would make little sense to recommend behavioral therapies that are only modestly effective.
But it is not the case that there are many, highly effective therapies and procedures for the management of persistent pain. With one possible exception, there are actually no highly effective therapies for chronic pain.
A Systematic Review of the Effectiveness of Low Back Surgeries for Pain and Disability, Written for Patients and their Families
It’s common to believe that treatments recommended and performed by healthcare providers are effective. It’s generally understood, for instance, that governmental institutions hold medications to a certain level of scientific scrutiny and, as such, medications have been shown to be effective before healthcare providers are allowed to prescribe them to their patients. Most people think the same is true for procedures that are performed in healthcare. It’s common, for instance, for people to assume that surgeries have undergone governmental-level scientific scrutiny and have been shown to be effective before they are allowed to be performed on patients.
Over the last few years, I have argued that we need to rethink the nature of opioid use disorder in the population of people who take opioids as prescribed for moderate-to-severe persistent pain. I’ve done so in various formats, including in presentations as well as here at the Institute for Chronic Pain, in both web pages (Should the Definition of Opioid Addiction Change? and Opioid Dependency & the Intolerability of Pain) and blog posts (The Central Dilemma in the Opioid Management Debate and Dreaded or Embraced? Opioid Tapering in Chronic Pain Management).
I do so because I think that the fields of both pain management and addiction are overly focused on loss of control as the primary indicator of when a person on long-term opioids for pain management crosses the line into the problematic state of an opioid use disorder (OUD). The argument these fields tend to use goes something like the following:
People with moderate-to-severe, persistent pain often come to a pain rehabilitation program because they want more out of life. It is not so much that they are looking for outright pain relief, since they’ve had pain for so long they know it isn't going away altogether. What they are looking for instead is to be able to get back into life and do activities that they no longer do.
Last year, I served on a committee looking into reasons for resistance by the healthcare community to adopt opioid prescribing guidelines. At first blush, this reluctance was perplexing.
The Institute for Chronic Pain (ICP) recently published a content piece on the roles that shame play in the experience of pain, particularly in persistent pain. It’s an under-reported topic in the field of pain management. In fact, we don’t tend to talk about it at all.
I recently was at a meeting on designing a model of pain care delivery. The meeting was filled with clinical and operational experts. In the course of the meeting, one healthcare provider made the case that high quality pain care starts with “finding the pain generator.” By this phrase, he meant that the delivery system should support the use of scans and diagnostic injections to identify the orthopedic structure(s) responsible for any given patient’s pain. From there, he insisted that a foundation could be laid for establishing successful treatment plans to resolve the identified pain generator, presumably through interventional and/or surgical means.
Once having made his case, another provider spoke up and asked how he’d square the care delivery model he proposed with the fact that so-called “pain generators” lack any significant correlation with pain. She cited common evidence showing that findings on MRI scans do not correlate with pain, and that diagnostic injections lack reliability and validity (cf., Vagaska, et., 2019; Kreiner, et al., 2020). In so doing, she used science to challenge the whole foundation on which the previous speaker had advocated for his model of pain care delivery.
In reaction, it was apparent that the original speaker didn’t quite know how to respond. The challenge seemed to catch him by surprise. He seemed unaware of the common research findings she referenced.
Every year, a “dead zone” appears in the Gulf of Mexico due to a gigantically large algae bloom. This summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted the dead zone to be the size of both Delaware and Connecticut combined.
The origins of the dead zone are traceable to over a thousand miles away from the farms of the upper Midwest, and all points further south. The origin, in other words, is farm run-off of nutrients from manure and chemical fertilizers.
Farmers in these states have animals that produce manure. They also use fertilizers on their fields. With time and rainfall, nutrients from these sources seep into the Mississippi and any of its countless tributaries. Making their way eventually to the Gulf of Mexico, these nutrients in the manure and fertilizers combine with the heat of the Gulf to spawn catastrophically large algal blooms that kill everything in its wake.
Well-meaning farmers of the Dakotas, say, or Minnesota, or Wisconsin, may never know of the distant consequences of their actions. As such, it’s nearly impossible, and perhaps even unfair, to hold any one person responsible. How would you ever know, for instance, that this farmer’s fertilizer applications, as opposed to that farmer’s application, led in part to the dead zone that occurs so far downstream in space and time? In general, we can rightly say that farm manure and the application of chemical fertilizer and its subsequent nutrient-rich run-off cause of the dead zone in the Gulf, but for any one particular farmer it is much harder to make a causal attribution.
The Gulf of Mexico dead zone, along with its distant causes, is a perfect analogy to the use of prescription opioids and the resultant opioid epidemic of addiction and overdose.
Commonly, patients and providers assume that pain is the result of an injury or illness, or at least some type of condition in the body. So, for example, when pain in the low back occurs, it’s common to think of it as the result of some type of tweak or mild injury that must have occurred. When it goes on for some time, it’s also is common to want an MRI scan to see “what’s going on” in the back. Such scans often reveal some type of degenerative condition of the spine, which is subsequently considered the cause of the back pain.
As a result, people with pain tend to seek therapies that target the condition in the body by means of physical therapy that strengthens the core, or undergo steroid injections, or even surgery.
The same would be true if the onset of pain occurred in the shoulder or knee or hip. We’d tend to think of the pain as a sign that something is wrong in these joints, something orthopedic in nature, such as arthritis or a problem with a ligament or muscle. We’d tend to seek a scan to help in diagnosis followed by physical therapy, an injection or surgery,
The purpose of these types of assessment and therapies would be to treat the condition that is assumed to be the cause of pain. While doing so, we might take pain medications that act on the brain.
The single most important concern in public policy debates related to the use of opioids for persistent, or chronic, pain is what happens to people with persistent pain when they reduce or taper the use of opioids.
It is often helpful to use analogies and metaphors when explaining complex health topics to patients and their families. This statement is no less true when explaining the complexities of successful pain management. There are many helpful metaphors and analogies, and we have discussed a number of them previously in this blog, such as in the different ways to relate to pain or even experience pain. Another helpful analogy to explain the nature and goals of successful pain management is with the analogy to successful weight management.
It is helpful to liken pain management to weight management because weight management is often better understood by patients and their families. So, let’s review and learn about what it takes to successfully self-manage pain by looking at how it’s similar to successful weight management.