The latest heresy propagated by the misguided War on Drugs, particularly the version that is an opiophobic war against pain patients and their physicians, is that engendered by both pop and professional psychology. In short, it is the claim that to control one’s own pain by controlling thought processes is a better alternative than pain medication for chronic pain. Thus, mental self-control is added to physical therapy, diet, and exercise, as purveyors of these so-called better methods hope to gain the income they saw going to legitimate, board certified pain management physicians who actually provide relief from pain. The heresy is that theirs is an alternative therapy, when in fact for far too many chronic pain patients it is at best a supplement to actual pain relief by medical methods.
Before addressing this heresy, allow me to outline my credentials for debunking it. For 46 years I have suffered from degenerative disc disease. At the present time, there is no part of my spine unaffected by this process, no part that fails to add to the pain. At four different places in my back and neck, there are outgrowths (stenosis, protruding disc material, arthritis and one spinal meningioma) intruding on the spinal cord itself, with resulting radicular pain, weakness in extremities, and the potential for paralysis. In addition, 14 years ago I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes, with severe diabetic neuropathy. Walking produces paradoxical pain and numbness, often resulting in missteps and falling if I do not actually see where my feet are.
Because I have always been unable to take pain medications (as well as many other medications), early on I accepted the responsibility for dealing with my pain pretty much on my own. To the extent possible, I considered it a “mind over matter” situation and learned to compartmentalize the pain while I worked full time all those years, was divorced and learned to support myself, gained first a nursing certification and then a Ph.D. While these “alternatives” to pain medication made life possible up to a point, it remained very difficult and the control was as often geared toward forcing myself to keep going as it was to training my mind away from the pain.
I held positions that were demanding and stressful, often working 60-70 hours a week and rarely getting more than 3-4 hours sleep because of the pain. As both a nurse and a professional social scientist, I was knowledgeable about the supplemental psychological and physical methods I was using. But no matter how well I used distraction, being useful, loving my job, and being positive; no matter how I accepted my pain as simply another part of my life and tried to minimize its presence in my thoughts and mind, it continued taking its toll on my body and my life. THESE SUPPLEMENTAL METHODS OF PAIN CONTROL WERE INSUFFICIENT, NEITHER REMOVING MY PAIN NOR REDUCING ITS EFFECTS ON MY BODY.
Three years ago, all the defects in my efforts to control chronic pain came to a devastating but inevitable concluding failure. The discs on either side of a lower thoracic vertebra “imploded”—displacing the vertebra, and creating scoliosis from that point upward in my spine. The pain, added to what I already suffered, was too excruciating for me to fight. Additionally, other disease processes were becoming worse from the long-term stress: my diabetes was out of control, I had cardiac problems, allergies, and severe gastric issues. I retired from full time work at the age of 72, and moved to a city where I hoped to find good medical care and a church family where I would feel at home. I did not think it would be for long, and often my pain was so exquisite, so unrelenting, that I prayed for the relief of death.
That, in summary, is the story of my life without pain medication. It was a long nightmare of having to give over so much of my personal energy to keeping pain levels manageable that I had nothing left for the responsibilities of any kind of family or personal life. Pain was the constant companion of my days and nights for so many years that I had forgotten many of the pleasures of a life free of pain. Don’t get me wrong—I am not looking for the reader’s sympathy. I am simply stating facts, not just for myself, but also for the millions of chronic pain sufferers in the USA who also live with untreated or undertreated chronic pain because of unjust and unreasonable regulations about what kind of treatment and how much of it they are allowed. Regulations too often created by people without the credentials or experience to understand the “unintended consequences” of their need to control a situation that has nothing to do with legitimate pain care, and everything to do with a dysfunctional understanding of addiction.
There is obviously more to my story, and that is because my selection of this city proved to be an excellent choice. Here, I was referred to a pain management physician with the skill, compassion and integrity to not only medically provide periods of full relief from my pain, but also to help me find a pain medication that I am able to tolerate. I now know with certainty, for the first time in my life, that the so-called “alternatives” to pain medication do not qualify for the term “alternative.” They simply are NOT EQUAL to the task of relieving severe, chronic, disabling pain that takes its toll on both mind and body. They can be excellent supplemental methods for maintenance of the effects of tolerable levels of pain (which differs in EACH AND EVERY patient, as do the effects of all forms of pain management) but they are no match for the pain suffered by those of us whose lives of debilitating chronic pain are defined by pain management or the lack thereof.