Going for a night out with friends: a normal occurrence. A friend texts you with a plan, you agree, and you meet them out for food and drink, all while sharing laughs and good times the whole evening without a worry in the world. However, for many people, going out with friends is not so simple.
Imagine now that you’re one of the more than 50 million Americans suffering from chronic pain. A friend invites you out for a nice evening together and you agree but begrudgingly because the pain is constant. You can’t turn down another invitation because you fear if you do, these types of invitations may stop coming in altogether. What if the pain becomes severe and I’m nowhere near my medication? How will I be able to enjoy the meal if I’m dreading every moment? Why must I be mentally taxed by this lingering ailment?
Unfortunately, this narrative is all too common for many people. We all likely either suffer from chronic pain or know someone who does, and a healthcare solution is essential. Yet, our country’s existing treatment options are falling far short of providing us the relief we need.
Now, imagine that no matter where you go, who you see, or what so-called solutions you try, nothing seems to make you feel any better. There are certainly options available and the market is robust – Americans spend roughly $14 billion annually on pain management products and pharmaceuticals – but those suffering the most are stuck between a rock and a hard place: trying to navigate the confusing ecosystem of chronic pain management that’s overwhelming, impersonal, and non-standardized, or turning to opioids and risking dependence issues and potentially dangerous side effects.
The bottom line is that people suffering from chronic pain struggle to receive the care they need to live stress-free lives and looking to find relief only adds to their stress and affects their mental health. Patients are left to their own devices to figure out where their pain originates and then maneuver through the silos of chronic pain care to find an effective solution. The whole process resembles more of a wild goose chase than a tried-and-true medical diagnostic process. This doesn’t even take into account that we have only 7,000 board-certified pain management physicians in the U.S. to treat the tens of millions of people who need help.
Until we as the medical community come together to help bring relief to the millions suffering, they will continue to hurt. Faced with relentless pain that makes simple daily tasks — cooking dinner, playing with kids, going shopping — too difficult, many chronic pain patients feel ostracized and isolated. Many reject invitations to go out with friends because they fear they’ll be a burden on them or will be misunderstood or judged for their pain. In the context of the decades-long opioid crisis in America, sufferers are hesitant to use any form of opioid since they don’t want to be perceived as pill seekers.
May was Mental Health Awareness Month, and I — along with my colleagues at Clearing — were reminded of the importance of the work we are doing toward breaking the stigma around mental health, in particular this very stigma that follows chronic pain sufferers. For far too long, we have abandoned chronic pain sufferers or tried to force a one-size-fits-all model to relieve them of their discomfort.
But what can we do? For one, we must address the underlying issue of lack of access for patients. Patients’ demand for pain treatment far outstrips supply simply because the number of patients is exponentially greater than the number of pain doctors – we need to broaden access for all patients. Additionally, opioids alone are not a panacea to chronic pain. As the past two decades have clearly shown, the opioid crisis – with more than 40,000 overdoses annually and a staggering 150 million prescriptions written every year – has made us all rethink when and how we prescribe opioids.
Most of all, though, we need to embrace an iterative approach to pain management. By using the latest advancements in telehealth capabilities, we can see more patients and serve them better. Through a combination of virtual doctor visits and multimodal treatment options, pain care can evolve over time as the patient’s pain needs change. Bringing relief from pain also can help ease the collateral effects, such as impacts to their mental wellness. A collaborative approach, with the help of new and advancing technologies, can pave the way for the future of chronic pain management therapies and help end the mental health stigma that plagues chronic pain patients.