An estimated 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. When pain is persistent, even daily activities like driving a car, sitting at a desk or going to the market can become daunting—or even impossible. The most common solution remains prescribed painkillers, but they can have devastating consequences, from dependency to addiction, from increased pain to overdose.
Enter authors Dr. Mel Pohl, vice president of Medical Affairs and the Medical Director of Las Vegas Recovery Center.
“The Pain Antidote: The Proven Program to Help You Stop Suffering from Chronic Pain, Avoid Addiction to Painkillers—and Reclaim Your Life” (Da Capo Lifelong Books, $16.99), offers an innovative, painkiller-free approach to managing chronic pain by utilizing both traditional and alternative healing techniques. The book guides chronic pain sufferers on a step-by-step journey to leading a healthier and more vibrant life. The steps include:
• Understanding how emotions affect chronic pain and how the body responds to medications
• Recognizing the difference between dependence and addiction
• Restoring physical and emotional health through exercise, meditation, acupressure, and other methods
• Unthinking negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones
• Discovering how certain foods—like cranberries, white tea, and even chocolate—can reduce pain
• Regaining control over daily activities by following a four-week jumpstart plan
• The book is so original in its mission, we asked Dr. Pohl a few questions.
Alan Petrucelli: Why is chronic pain so prevalent and such a problem?
Mel Pohl: Pain exists. It is subject to interpretation by each individual and is based on experience, upbringing, belief systems, mood, and physical conditions. As we get older as a culture, there is more time to sustain injuries and illness that result in chronic pain. The prevailing attitude about pain in this country is that is must be taken away—resulting in some very negative results. Specifically, chronic pain results in opioid use and overuse, dependence, and addiction. Also, in the quest for pain relief and in our attempts to avoid pain, we often create more. If pain is regarded as awful, the enemy or the beast, we expend energy to get away from the experience. Our brain creates worry, fear, anger, sadness, and stress—all of which makes the pain worse.
AP:What are the first things a person can do if in chronic pain?
MP: The key to healing begins with acceptance. You must allow the pain to exist—to coexist, if you will, with your being. This can start, simply, with a deep breath. Next is to begin exercising through the soreness to allow the body’s natural clearance system to help get rid of toxins. Next, look at what’s coming into your body—food, fluids, and medications. Nourishing and hydrating the body are paramount for good health—opiates, if they are used, can result in serious problems and should be examined with the help of an understanding health practitioner. Lastly, be open to different, nontraditional methods that can benefit a person in chronic pain.
AP: How does someone get addicted to pain medications?
MP: Probably, if someone becomes addicted to pain medications, they had a predisposition because of their brain chemistry from an early age. Many are born with this tendency. It seems like the key is that when someone with this predisposition takes a drug—in this case, an opioid—they feel something unique and almost “magical.” They feel good—out of pain, both physical and emotional. The cycle of addiction occurs when, in an attempt to re-experience these feelings, the person uses more and more of the drug, with increasing problems as a result of using. Eventually they will experience loss of control and a craving which drives them to continue to use despite negative consequences.
AP: Is it true that chronic pain changes the brain?
MP: Yes. The brain is plastic or changeable. If exposed to a certain stimulus, the brain changes in response. If the stimulus is pain, chemical levels change and eventually the actual neurocircuitry of the brain transforms. This may or may not be reversible—certainly continuous use of opioid medications changes the brain.
AP: Why is it important to move the body even if doing so hurts more?
MP: If we have pain, and we don’t move, and hold the painful part of us in just the right position…just right at just the right angle…it may not hurt. If we continue to hold our body in a particular position, eventually, if and when we try to move, we are either stuck in that position (like a frozen shoulder)—or when we do move, it hurts worse than before. One of the cardinal rules of treatment of chronic pain is “move it or lose it”—in other words, we must move or the pain will get worse. Moving and exercising temporarily hurts more, but eventually loosens the tissues and decreases the level of pain.
AP: What is TENS?
MP: Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator is an electronic device that works through the skin by sending a painless electrical current to specific nerves. The current may be delivered intermittently or continuously. The mild electrical current generates heat that serves to relieve stiffness, improve mobility, and relieve pain. The treatment is believed to stimulate the body’s production of endorphins or natural painkillers.
AP: How do you as a doctor respond to patients who say, “It’s never going to get better,” and “I can’t do it?”
MP: This is a commonly expressed sentiment by people who are suffering with chronic pain. When I work with someone with a painful condition, the first thing I let them know is that any statement containing “never” or “can’t” is simply a lie. The lies we tell ourselves are fear-based. The truth is that, with a variety of techniques the pain will change—at times be better. For some, simply stopping opioid medications makes it a little better. Everyone can do something about their pain. Many don’t want to or are afraid they won’t be successful, and there’s no denying that it’s harder than taking medications and not moving. But the returns on investment of time and energy are bountiful.