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Opioid Awareness

How the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Helping Advance Pain Management

Mary Dale Peterson, M.D., MSHCA, FACHE, FASA

President, American Society of Anesthesiologists 

Pain management is essential. This has become even clearer during COVID-19 as stress, isolation, and limited access to care add to the challenges for people in pain — especially those trying to avoid opioids. But the pandemic has also prompted some positive changes, bolstering innovations such as telehealth and minimally invasive treatments for long-lasting pain relief. 

An insufficient solution

Opioids can be effective for short-term relief, but they are not a long-term solution because they are highly addictive and have significant side effects, including sleepiness, constipation, and nausea.  Some side effects can be life-threatening. The signs of an overdose include shallow breathing, slowed heart rate, and loss of consciousness. Unfortunately, early evidence suggests drug overdoses — including those from opioids — may be increasing as people try to cope with the pandemic.

Embracing alternatives

Thankfully, pain management has evolved beyond these potentially risky medications. There are a variety of alternatives, including non-addictive medications, injections, exercises, and minimally invasive methods that block, redirect, or short-circuit pain for months at a time.

To reduce exposure to the virus and save patients from traveling to appointments and sitting in crowded waiting rooms, most pain medicine specialists are offering telehealth visits using secure face-to-face video or phone calls. Via telehealth, pain specialists work with patients to ask and answer questions and formulate a pain management plan that does not involve opioids. 

Sometimes the answer may be one office visit — using safety protocols such as wearing masks — to provide treatments that relieve pain for six months or more. These treatments may include therapeutic injections, the implantation of a device in the back to disrupt pain signals, or radiofrequency ablation to silence nerves that carry pain signals from achy joints. 

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