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“People are looking for better answers”: A conversation about chronic pain

Chronic pain limits the lives of an estimated 100 million people in one way or another and costs our country half a trillion dollars per year, according to Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Pain Medicine. To address the needs of the many people suffering from back pain, the most common kind of chronic pain, Mackey and other doctors and researchers in the division recently held a free Back Pain Education Day.

The event was popular enough that all seats were filled more than a week ahead of time, and a video stream of the day's speakers was viewed by almost 1,500 people during the conference and in the week following. Recordings of the day's talks can now be viewed on the Division of Pain's YouTube channel.

We don't have a cure for chronic pain. What we have are exceptional ways [to help] people get back their lives

During a recent conversation, Mackey told me the big turn-out reflects the keen interest people living with back pain have in finding solutions. "People are looking for better answers: why they have what they have and what they can do about it," he said. "We wanted to provide them with real-world tools that they can use to control their pain."

Speakers at the event covered varied ground, including physical therapy approaches to pain management, new research in using acupuncture to treat pain, self-management strategies, mindfulness-based pain reduction and the important role of sleep in pain. (Recent research has shown that poor sleep can intensify and prolong pain.) One over-riding theme was the role of the brain, Mackey said, not just in terms how people experience pain, but also how it can help turn down or turn up pain.

Mackey cautions that a quick fix often isn't possible, so people living with chronic pain need to think about long-term management. "It's a chronic disease, like diabetes. We don't have cures for diabetes, and we don't have a cure for chronic pain," he said. "What we have are exceptional ways to control the disease and ways [to help] people get back their lives." Speaker Beth Darnall, PhD, the event co-chair, emphasized that pain psychology techniques can empower people to lessen distress and pain, and begin moving toward meaningful life goals.

Mackey said faculty and staff in pain medicine take a multi-disciplinary approach to treating their patients -- physicians, psychologists, physical therapists, even dietitians work together to provide care -- which reflects a national-level shift in how we deal with pain. Mackey recently co-chaired the team responsible for the National Pain Strategy, a plan that the Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee has laid out for pain research, prevention, treatment and education for both professionals and lay people. A draft version was shared for public comment recently, and a final version of the strategy should be released by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services later this year.

"Chronic pain takes a huge toll on the individual, their family, and society as a whole," Mackey told me. It can become a disease in its own right, but one that can be treated with a team-based approach that "looks at the patient as an entire person," he said. "People shouldn't suffer in silence. Help is available..."

More information about the Division of Pain Medicine can be found by following the @StanfordPain Twitter feed.

Previously: Stanford expert on back pain: "The important thing for people to know is that it's treatable",  Study: Effects of chronic pain on relationships can lead to emotional distress, National survey reveals extent of Americans living with pain and Chronic pain: Getting your head around it
Photo by Harrygouvas

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