How well do our pain medications work?

If you’re anything like me, you may have wondered why pain medications aren’t working well. Aren’t giving the relief we’re told they should. I’ve been taken off NSAIDs because they hurt my stomach – has this happened to you to? I’ve been offered opioids after surgery but decided against it for fear of addiction even though I’ve been in a lot of pain – do you relate? I’ve also tried lowering doses of medications and found they’ve been as effective on a lower dose as they were on a higher one, because I’ve added holistic approaches to pain control – what about you?

Some medications and supplements I’ve been on (and this isn’t even all of them).

There were some interesting recommendations out of the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK that came out of a meta-analysis (review of scientific studies) on treatments for pain/pain management. The part of the study and recommendations that really blew my mind what was that not a single pain medication was said to have enough evidence to support its effectiveness for treating chronic primary pain. Now, I will say that they reviewed about 22 studies per type of pain management – each medication and each holistic approach – that they looked at, so not super extensive but definitely enough to be a good indicator. I’m going to do a podcast episode on the 5 suggested treatments (exercise, acupuncture, 2 types of psychotherapy, and anti-depressants) for pain so stay tuned to the podcast for that episode in a few weeks. On the blog this week, I thought we’d talk about what they said about all these pain meds that we take!

NICE didn’t comment on CBD/Medical Marijuana, other than to say they didn’t really review the research in this area.

Opioids – I know that these are commonly prescribed, and as a mental health professional, I also know that there is an opioid crisis in North America (that being said, just because you take opioids does not mean you’ll become addicted as we need to look at other biopsychosocial factors). NICE states that there is not enough evidence that shows long-term opioid use actually helps with chronic pain, plus they note the risk of addiction (for some people) in the short- and long-term. Conclusion: Maybe not a good idea.

Benzodiazapines and NSAIDs – also commonly prescribed, and as I said, I used to be on strong NSAIDs that hurt my stomach, now I have a less strong one that I’m to take “as needed.” Benzos were cautioned as not being effective for chronic pain, AND leading to poorer functioning. And NSAIDs, these were said to also not improve pain, distress, or quality of life and increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. Conclusion: Maybe not a good idea either.

Antiepileptics (Gabapentinoids) and Pregablin – these are only shown to be effective for neuropathic pain and CRPS. However, NICE cautions that they can be highly dependent and are known to be addictive. Again, one needs to consider biopsychosocial factors, but if you have other risk factors for addiction, possibly not a good choice. Conclusion: Depends on your condition and your risk factors for substance misuse.

Local anaethetics – Short-term use indicates they may actually make things worse, except for CRPS. So again, this might come down to your specific diagnosis. Luckily there was nothing mentioned about them becoming addiction. Conclusion: A go for CRPS but not anything else.

Paracetamol, ketamine, corticosteroids, anaesthetic/corticosteroid combinations and antipsychotics – again there is insufficient evidence for all of these, and NICE cautions that harm could actually come from taking these, though they don’t specify what the harm is. Conclusion: Maybe not a good idea.

I find it best when I combine holistic approaches, like exercise, with Western medicine, like pain meds.

So, what have I done to supplement lowering my pain medications (which may not be that effective anyway) so that I can continue to have better quality of life and well-being? A lot of the recommendations made by NICE and some others. I exercise daily (any movement is good movement if you’re starting out), I eat healthy, I use approaches such as acupuncture, chiropractor, physiotherapy, mindfulness, etc., and I have been to psychotherapy (and I currently use psychotherapy to help others). You can check out NICE’s study here. ALWAYS, check with your physician and healthcare team before changing medications or doses or adding holistic care to your plan. I started by adding holistic approaches first, and then cut back on meds. We are each unique individuals and this information is for psychoeducation/health education purposes only.

This week’s podcast episode is on nutrition for chronic illness – check it out: Apple, Spotify, Web.
Everyone, keep making the most of it!

If you like my content, I would love the support on Patreon so I can keep bringing it to you (plus you get some bonuses by signing up).

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Pain Scales – The Enemy of Chronic Pain Warriors

Literally my least favourite question when I go into any doctor or specialist appointment is, “what is your pain like today?” or “on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst ever, how’s your pain right now?” To someone with chronic pain, these are the most useless, arbitrary questions. Here’s the thing, I understand why doctors and other healthcare professionals ask the question. They want to get a gauge on if your pain is better or worse than it has been in the past. It totally makes sense. However, there are a few things about chronic pain (and pain in general) that aren’t taken into account with this questions.

  1. My perception of what a “10” is may be higher or lower than your perception of what that is.
  2. I’m not always entirely sure what number I should give. Like really, what is the difference between a “6” and a “7”?
  3. Often pain changes throughout the day, so just because I give it a “4” right now, doesn’t mean that it won’t be an “8” in half an hour.
Hm… I’m smiling and happy in both pictures and yet my pain is a “0” on the left, and a “7-8” on the right.

And yet, this is always the first question asked at any appointment. Sometimes I literally just want to say “I don’t know.!” How many of you feel this way to? Plus, sometimes there is this need to want to give a higher number so that the pain is taken more seriously and not just dismissed. Here’s the thing that healthcare professionals often miss – there are better ways to describe pain than using a 1-10 scale. For example, “what type of pain are you experiencing/do you experience?” “What times of day are worst for pain?” “What activities or circumstances do you notice more pain or less pain?” “Are there any points in the day when you feel little to no pain?” And so on. These questions are easier to answer, and honestly, give a more realistic perspective of my pain than me guessing at a number to give my doctor.

Just gonna throw in the random deer visiting a retirement home across the street from me.

The main model used in medicine (and psychology) right now is the biopsychosocial model (except sometimes doctors forget to use it when talking about chronic pain it seems). For those of you not familiar with this, it is the interplay between biological and psychosocial causes (or maintenance) of a medical (or psychological condition). When applying this model to chronic pain, we look at the biological causes of an illness or injury, and how psychosocial factors maintain or increase the physical sensations of pain. It’s that mind-body connection. Here’s an example: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system in your brain has been associated with several chronic pain syndromes including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and MS. It is one of the biological causes of pain (though not necessarily the only). Psychological factors that can maintain or increase this pain include feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Social factors and behaviours that maintain and increase pain include door diet and nutrition, lack of exercise, and substance use (including smoking). Stress is another major psychosocial factor associated with chronic pain. So, rather than asking what are pain is on a scale from 1-10, looking at these factors is likely more productive in both understanding and managing pain!

Image from: https://www.practicalpainmanagement.com/treatments/psychological/biopsychosocial-approach
The paragraph on the biopsychosocial model is cited from this article.

Let’s talk about pain management. Whether you do this on your own, or with the help of your healthcare team, here are some ways to improve your pain management (because let’s face it, chronic pain is unlikely to magically go away):

  • medication compliance – taking all medication as prescribed!
  • addressing psychological factors – such as anxiety – this could be through relaxation and meditative techniques or even exercise, or going to see a psychotherapist
  • utilizing interdisciplinary healthcare teams – do you have a family doctor? A specialist for your illness or injury? A psychotherapist? A physical and/or occupational therapist? Anyone else who can help you with your pain? (I also have a naturopath and chiropractor for example).
Make a therapist part of your healthcare team! We’re here to help!
(just noting that I’m a therapist-in-training right now)

For anyone reading this who is not a chronic pain warrior, please remember that pain isn’t in our heads, and telling us to just deal with it isn’t helpful. In fact it can be stigmatizing, and people with chronic pain always face stigma because of a lack of understanding. We may laugh, smile and have fun, and yet be in pain at the same time. The things are not mutually exclusive. I’m going to link a few episodes of my podcast that complement this post below. For now, keep making the most of it everyone!

Mental Health and Chronic Illness

The “I Suck” Feeling

Locating Our Inner Strength

How Stress and Anxiety Manifest in the Body

Holistic Approaches to Chronic Pain