Narcotics are the most popular method for treating chronic pain. In the decade 1997 to 2006, there was a narcotic usage percent increase of 347 percent in the US (Dartmouth Medicine Magazine). This has lead pain management doctors to begin asking the question “Is such a huge use of narcotics effective?” Narcotics are an easy option for doctors, but a better treatment option for increasing function is mixing in holistic treatments. One may not be able to eliminate pain, but the more important overall outcome is to improve function.
At this juncture, over one hundred million US individuals are living in chronic pain at a cost of over $530 billion a year. Have we reached epidemic proportions? Yes that point has been reached, and front and center with this problem are narcotic prescriptions. What makes them so popular? They end up being an easy answer for pain doctors, who can perform the easy option – the quick fix prescription. Narcotics may relieve pain, but the problem is not fixed.
Narcotics often work their “magic” by dulling the nervous system, but while doing it they may be highly addictive. Tolerance may set in, where the individual needs more medication to get the same pain relief. Even with no change in the patient’s anatomical problem, the dosing of pain medication needed for the same amount of pain relief may begin to spiral out of control. Also, there is a situation termed opioid induced hyperalgesia (OIH) where a person can end up dealing with increased pain even when narcotics are increased.
Other side effects of chronic narcotic usage may include immune system suppression, depression, altered sleep, or endocrine dysfunction.
With chronic pain, unfortunately there is no objective test to identify the amount of pain a person is experiencing. It is a subjective experience. It may cause inability to work, socialize, play with one’s kids, or have fun with recreational activities.
It is difficult to completely eradicate chronic pain, and the true focus should be on improving function instead of simply numbing pain. Does this mean getting rid of pain completely? It could simply mean helping individuals learn to live with their pain.
Non-narcotic methods of helping patients function better with chronic pain include physical therapy, relaxation exercises, chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, spinal decompression therapy, diet and exercise improvement, and stress management.
These types of treatment may be apparent in an integrated pain clinic, utilizing both traditional and alternative methods. One of the main issues is that the integrated treatments work, but are not routinely covered by insurance plans. In these economic tough times, patients often rely on their insurance and do not necessarily have the means to pursue alternative treatments, even if it would result in a better outcome.