The Opioid Crisis and the Rise of Chronic Pain Treatment Alternatives

The Opioid Crisis and the Rise of Chronic Pain Treatment Alternatives

Posted By Vernon B. Williams, MD || 8-Jul-2016

If you’ve ever suffered from any type of chronic pain, you are very familiar with the absolute havoc it can wreak on your day-to-day life. Whether the pain is just stubbornly inconvenient or totally incapacitating, it can suck the joy out of the simple tasks of daily living and leave you begging for anything to take the pain away. Up until recently, opioid painkiller medications have been the most commonly sought after treatment for this type of pain. Why? Well, they’re accessible, affordable (sometimes even completely covered by insurance) and offer an immediate fix; three convincing facts that are hard to argue with. But, we need to take a closer look at what these medications are actually doing for us, and to us.

Remember, pain-relieving narcotics are not diving into the root cause of the pain and treating the underlying condition, but merely masking the painful symptoms associated with the condition (the pain). Now, if you are a chronic pain sufferer, this may seem like the best answer, due to the desperation to rid your body of the constant suffering. But does the benefit really outweigh the risk? Though opioids do mask the pain, they bring with them a plethora of other potential problems, largely due to the effect they have on the brain. The sedating effect of opioids may cause the person taking them to become apathetic towards family and friends, and unmotivated to work or take care of themselves. The biggest hurdle to date in the opioid race, however, is addiction. Once the body becomes physiologically dependent on the medication, and requires a higher dosage to mask the pain, it paves the road for the national epidemic of overdose deaths, addiction and poor clinical outcomes.

Fortunately, there are other options. Recent advances in medicine have shown success in treating chronic pain with alternative treatment methods. In fact, a Mayo Clinic study found that patients who were weaned off opioids and adopted a treatment program focusing on drug alternatives, experienced less pain than while on opioids and also significantly improved in daily function. The pain management techniques in use today vary based on the type of pain, the cause, and the severity. Some of the most popular alternative treatment methods with the highest success rates are exercise, acupuncture, physical therapy, chiropractic therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. In addition, neuromodulation through the use of focused cold therapies (cryoablation), electrical stimulation, radio frequency and transcranial magnetic stimulation are effective neurological approaches to managing or eliminating pain.

Stress reduction techniques such as yoga or music therapy are also highly regarded for the treatment of chronic pain. The build-up of extreme stress that stems from experiencing constant pain can push us over the edge physically and emotionally, which makes stress reduction crucial in pain management. One of the brightest highlights of these alternative options is that no matter how often they are used, they pose no negative harm to the body, in stark comparison to the potentially-disabling effects of opioids.

Though it can seem easy for the doctor of a chronic pain sufferer to just write out an order for narcotics on a prescription pad and have the patient on their way to relief, this is not a sustainable approach. The pain will be relieved for a short time, but without any resolution of the problem that is causing it in the first place. It’s important to note, however, that some patients may still benefit from a combination of acute pain killers and long-term therapy. For each individual that experiences chronic pain, there will be a different regimen of treatments that holds the answers to relief. It is a skilled neurologist who helps determine and educate patients on exactly what that regimen is and why. Considering different options, and figuring out exactly what works for YOU is the first step forward towards a pain-free life.

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