'I've Been In Almost-Constant Pain For Nearly 20 Years'
6 months ago, 28 Dec 20:43
Millions of women are shattered by chronic pain. Many are put on a pharmaceutical diet of opioids that offer diminishing returns in relief—leaving some addicted. But could healing the body begin with treating the mind? WH health director Tracy Middleton investigates an alternative therapy that could help legions of sufferers piece their lives back together. Sometimes, it wakes me in the middle of the night: a punishing throb in my lower back. The pain has been my near-constant companion for half of my 41 years. I don't know its origins. As a health editor, and with no injury to point to, I suspect DNA may play a role—studies have shown a genetic link, and I come from a long line of bad backs. Regardless, over time it's become more tenacious. Insistent. For the past four years, it's been joined by a gnawing, steady thrum that radiates down my left leg from hip to knee, the by-product of a herniated disk pressing on a nerve in my spine. Some days, it whispers. Others, it roars. My distress is just a drop in the bucket. Chronic pain—the kind that lasts longer than three months and torpedoes people's sleep, moods, relationships, and careers—affects roughly 100 million Americans. The majority are women, in part because we're more likely to be plagued by conditions like fibromyalgia, migraines, and low-back pain. Sixty percent of sufferers seek help from their family doctor; 40 percent will see a specialist (e.g., a gastroenterologist for Crohn's disease). Many of them—roughly 10 million annually—will, at some point, be given a prescription narcotic, an opioid to numb the pain. I'm one of them. At times I can go days or weeks without the meds; but when even standing without pain becomes a struggle, I swallow them every six hours, per the label. I know the dangers: Up to 29 percent of patients given opioids for chronic pain misuse them; between 8 and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder; and roughly 5 percent transition to heroin. I'm not represented in any of those statistics, but they linger in my mind, which is one reason I'd like to stop taking the drugs. The other? Research shows that, for many people, opioids become less effective the longer you take them. Medication isn't the only way I've tried to appease my pain. I've gone to physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic sessions and had regular massages and steroid injections. The last time I saw my pain-med doctor for the latter (I get shots every six months or so), he suggested the one thing he'd previously believed I could avoid: seeing a neurosurgeon to discuss removing the part of the disk that's pressing on the nerve. I was crushed. In essence, he was telling me—just as my chiropractor had before him—that he'd reached the limit of his ability to help. I've watched my dad lose functionality with each of his four spinal surgeries (told you I came from a line of bad backs), and research shows up ...
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