New Approaches to Pain Care Needed

“For those suffering chronic pain, the hardest part is convincing others.”

These words reinforce what nearly one-third of Americans already know, and introduce an NPR feature on chronic pain. After reporting the all too familiar statistics, (about 116 million people suffer from chronic pain with a cost of $635 billion in medical expenses and lost wages), host Rachel Martin interviewed three people in their 30s.

Leo Kellberg is a former sergeant in the U.S. Army who was injured in Iraq when his convoy was struck by a grenade. Courtney Weatherby-Hunter has chronic pain in her neck and shoulder after falling off a mechanical bull while out drinking with friends. Kate Lydee has fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal disorder. She has suffered pain “all over” since the death of her two-month-old daughter. Her diagnosis of fibromyalgia came after years of visiting various doctors, and trying to persuade them that she had pain, and that it wouldn’t go away.

It’s a sensitive piece. You can hear the frustration in the voices of all three interviewees as they spoke about being unable to find relief from the pain that has plagued them for years.

Kellberg spoke of his sadness at not being able to play with his four children. “They don’t understand why me, being their dad, their superhero and all, that I can’t just snap out of it.” His doctors at the VA took him off prescription painkillers and he now relies on over-the counter meds. He also finds that spending time with his four dogs helps him focus and keep his mind off the pain. The two women interviewed still rely mainly on medication to manage their pain.

The feature is an exceptional piece of reporting, but unfortunately the emphasis is solely on medicinal treatment for chronic pain. Understandable, as medication is the only treatment for chronic pain that is widely covered by insurance.

Interdisciplinary pain management programs offer various modalities such as physical therapy and counseling. They allow patients to explore pain’s deepest root causes which are not addressed by drugs or injections. I wonder if Kate Lydee had been able to talk to her providers about the loss of her baby.

While it is important to understand the role medication plays in treating chronic pain, I wish that Rachel Martin and PBS had reported on America’s broken system, and how coverage of multidisciplinary treatment should be added to Medicare, Medicaid, and policies offered by private insurance companies.

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