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Pain Management

Understanding the Options for Comprehensive Pain Management

Emily Lemiska

Chief Communications and Operations Officer, U.S. Pain Foundation

Whether because of a minor ankle sprain or long-term back problems, pain is the leading reason Americans visit the doctor.

But even though pain is a common experience, effective treatment is anything but uniform — especially when it comes to chronic pain. 

Because pain involves so many variables, including underlying condition, comorbidities, body chemistry, and perception of pain, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to care. What helps one person may not work for another, even if they have the same condition and symptoms. 

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While patients might hope for a quick fix, the reality is that most people go through a process of trial-and-error to determine what best alleviates their symptoms. 

Finding effective options

Meaningful pain relief usually requires combining multiple options and strategies across disciplines; for example, one person might require massage therapy, prescription medications, and nerve blocks to manage their pain, and another might use acupuncture, physical therapy, and over-the-counter medications.

It can sometimes take several years to zero in on an effective treatment regimen. Even once a basic care plan is identified, it must be continually tailored as symptoms evolve. And effective treatment does not necessarily mean an individual will be without pain. For many, the goal is simply to reduce the pain to a tolerable level.

The challenges of effective pain care are so unique that Congress recently convened a federal task force charged with defining best practices in pain management. One of the key takeaways from the committee’s final report? The vital importance of multidisciplinary care.


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Categories of pain management

Fortunately, there is an ever-growing array of treatments available to try. This is especially true in light of the opioid crisis, which has catalyzed new research into multimodal options for relief. 

Here are seven categories of pain management options, along with examples of each, to discuss with your doctor:

  • Self-management and lifestyle changes: Examples: pacing and activity modification, sleep hygiene, diet and nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction techniques.
  • Restorative and manual therapies: Examples: physical therapy, occupational therapy, massage therapy, chiropractic care, osteopathic medicine, and aquatic therapy.
  • Complementary and integrative health options: Examples: acupuncture, aromatherapy, herbal and vitamin products, Reiki, and music and art therapy.
  • Mind-body and behavioral health strategies: Examples: counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, support groups, stress reduction techniques, and meditation and mindfulness practices.
  • Medications: Examples: acetaminophen, NSAIDs, muscle relaxants, antidepressants, antiepileptics, medical cannabis, and opioids. 
  • External stimulation devices: Examples: TENS units, high-frequency impulse therapy, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, ultrasound therapy, and vagus nerve stimulation.
  • Interventional procedures:Examples: injections and blocks (e.g., epidural injections, facet blocks, trigger point injections), and implanted neuromodulation devices (e.g., spinal cord stimulators, dorsal root ganglion stimulators, intrathecal pain pumps, peripheral nerve and field stimulators).
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For more information about the seven categories and treatments listed, visit mypainplan.org.

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