Let me start by saying that as a chronic pain sufferer I am very lucky and grateful. Like many who suffer from pain, I have had a tumultuous and painful journey but I’m at a place where things are about as good as they can be.
I was seriously injured in a traffic accident in 2003, and suffered serious back injuries. Surgeries, interventions and lots of frustration (about two years worth) ensued before I found Dr. Paul McCormick at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City who helped me through the surgeries that the accident necessitated. After the surgeries, he sat down with me and explained that I had something called “chronic pain.” He referred me to Dr. Michael Weinberger Chief of The Pain Management Department, and Palliative Care Department at Columbia Presbyterian who treated my pain and ultimately recommended that I have a spinal cord stimulator implanted. It was a success and I haven’t had to take pain medications for a decade and I’m living a full and independent life.
Like I said, I am lucky.
Like many of the 100 million chronic pain patients I could go into great detail about my own story, but that’s not why I’m writing this column. I’m writing because I think it’s time that President Obama and other federal leaders get a national conversation going about chronic pain.
When I look the public attention given to pain today, I think we are focusing on the wrong things. I am free of pain medication and have been for ten years. But when I needed it, I needed it. The DEA’s decision to reschedule hydrocodone products has had two results. One it has choked the supply of narcotic pain meds which may not be a bad thing on paper. But it also resulted in legitimate pain patients who need them not getting them. That is a bad thing.
It’s a big issue - but it is only one part of the chronic pain.
For one, I’m glad that the National Pain Strategy (NPS) has been drafted. I think it’s a good start to bringing the issue of chronic pain out of hiding and to the forefront of public health in the U.S. I encourage anyone who reads this to submit comments by the May 20th deadline. I worry a little that the people who drafted the strategy are the same folks who do most of the talking about pain. I worry even more that the perspective of real pain patients may be missing in the document. (Some of the patient advocate groups seem a little disconnected from the pain patient).
But as I said, it’s a good and long overdue start.
Pain is one of the most common reasons that people visit a doctor or other health care provider, and yet it has yet to be given adequate attention. The NPS says improvements are needed how to identify and treat pain in specific medical disciplines including basic knowledge, assessment, effective team-based care, empathy and cultural competency.
Both prevention and care of acute and chronic need greater emphasis throughout the health care system. My own story-and probably yours-is speckled with health care providers who either didn’t know exactly what to do with me or tried to fit me into a one-size fits all treatment.
It’s time for the federal government to lead the discussion.
On many issues when he’s trying to create bi-partisan support for something, President Obama likes to say “it’s not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democratic issue, it’s an American issue.”
Well, he’s right if he is talking about chronic pain.
The trouble is he hasn’t been.
His wife Michelle has been an articulate and passionate advocate for military families. She could tell him how the issue of chronic pain for active military and veterans permeates their lives. She could tell him what I would tell him - you don’t need to see a disease to know it exists.
I have written the President and asked him to raise the topic of chronic pain as a national conversation: to meet with real chronic pain patients and providers and learn that this issue is a bi-partisan issue. Chronic pain has no political philosophy. It is an equal opportunity enemy to millions of Americans and their families.
Let’s take that enemy on, today!
C’mon Mr. President. It’s time to talk about chronic pain and lead an action that can help the 100 million Americans who are suffering and impatiently waiting for you or someone to do something.
If not now, when?
Editor’s Note- Sara Gilbert Nadler has written on her experiences as a chronic pain patient. She has a Masters in Social Work and spent years of practice as a Medical Social Worker Case Manager in acute rehabilitation, acute care hospital, and skilled nursing facility settings.