Pain Management Options

...by Maddie Smith

Is your aging body sending distress signals? If we neglect our bodies or fail to treat them with proper respect, they have an effective means of expressing their dissatisfaction—we feel pain. We feel pain in our joints, our muscles, our backs. We may feel pain any place a nerve exists that can fire off an urgent distress signal to the brain. As we age, those distress signals seem to become more frequent. The simplest of movements, such as bending over to pick up a fallen object, can create instant regret.

The CDC reports that over 20% of adults in the U.S. live with chronic pain. About 17% live with severe levels of pain, according to a National Health Interview Survey. There is a plethora of information circulating about pain management treatments, even alternative treatments that don’t get attention from the medical community. Treating chronic pain is essential in maintaining mobility, strength and a positive attitude— whether a patient is recovering from surgery, cancer treatment, coping with a chronic health condition or aging in general.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) hosted an informative panel discussion in Spokane (rebroadcast in 2020). Here is what some of the experts in the field have to say about managing pain, including alternatives to opioids.

It is very common for doctors to prescribe opioids to patients for their chronic pain, even if the patient is not aware of other options. Joan Maxwell is a patient advocate for alternative treatments for pain. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she needed nine surgeries including a double mastectomy. She said she did not have one conversation with her doctor about pain management options for any of her surgeries: “Nine times I had surgery and nine times I was prescribed opioids.” Doctors want to help their patients alleviate pain, but the over-prescription of opioids has become a crisis. Maxwell feels patients should be active participants in their care and pain management plans; opioids are just one piece of the puzzle. She stressed that making the time for patient education is vital.

Cheyenne Newsome, clinical professor of pharmacotherapy at WSE, acknowledged the severity of the opioid epidemic on the country. She wants patients to know that opioids are not a cure for pain, rather a way to manage it. The goal for prescribing opioids is to prescribe the smallest dosage for the shortest amount of time possible. Newsome’s job is to evaluate the severity of the patient’s pain and to use all available resources to manage their symptoms.

For example, if your doctor deems them safe for you, over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen (sometimes in combination with other pain relief options) can be helpful in managing pain before jumping straight to opioids. Opioid patches deliver consistent levels of the drug rather than fast-releasing oral pills—patches are good for people who have trouble sticking to a schedule that oral pills require; they may also offer a steady, more level measure of pain relief. A wide variety of patches and creams are available that don’t require a prescription. From heat patches to creams made from peppers that block nerve receptors, over-the-county methods for pain management are plentiful at pharmacies. However, Newsome urges patients to consult with a health care provider before trying any new treatment as some of them do not react well with each other. For instance, patients should avoid putting a heat patch in the same place where they recently applied an opioid topical patch. Don’t forget the tried-and-true method of alternating ice packs with heat, which can be surprisingly helpful for some aches and pains.