Treatment options for chronic pain
1. What general options do I have to treat my pain?
There are a variety of options for the treatment of chronic pain. Under the general category of medications, there are both oral and topical therapies for the treatment of chronic pain. Oral medications include those that can be taken by mouth, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acetaminophen, and opioids. Also available are medications that can be applied to the skin, whether as an ointment or cream or by a patch that is applied to the skin. Some of these patches work by being placed directly on top of the painful area where the active drug, such as lidocaine, is released. Others, such as fentanyl patches, may be placed at a location far from the painful area. Some medications are available over the-counter (OTC) while others may require a prescription.
There are many things that may help with your pain which do not involve medications. These things may help relieve some pain and reduce the medications required to control your pain. Examples include exercises, best performed under the direction of a physical therapist. There are also alternative modalities, such as acupuncture. Transcutaneous Electro-Nerve Stimulator (TENS) units use pads that are placed on your skin to provide stimulation around the area of pain and may help to reduce some types of pain symptoms.
Finally, there are interventional techniques that involve injections into or around various levels of the spinal region. These can involve relatively superficial injections into the painful muscles, called trigger point injections, or may involve more invasive procedures. There are multiple procedures that range from epidural injections for pain involving the neck and arm or the back and leg, facet injections into the joints that allow movement of the neck and back to injections for burning pain of the arms or legs due to a syndrome called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome or Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (CRPS).
2. What are some of the typical medications used for the treatment of chronic pain? What are some of the common side effects associated with these medications?
There are several categories of medications that are used for the treatment of chronic pain. In general, your primary physician, patient management specialist, or pharmacist may be to answer any questions about the dosage and side effects from these medications. The most commonly used medications can be divided into the following broad categories:
- Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs and Acetaminophen: There are many different types of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), some of them (such as ibuprofen) may be obtained over-the-counter. NSAIDs can be very effective for acute muscular and bone pain as well as some types of chronic pain syndromes. When taken for an extended period of time or in large quantities, they may have negative effects on the kidneys, clotting of blood, and gastrointestinal system. Bleeding ulcers is a risk of these medications. Long-term use of cyclooxygenase II (COX II) inhibitors may be associated with an increase in cardiovascular (heart) risks. Acetaminophen is easily obtained over-the-counter, however, care should be taken not to take more than 4000 mg in 24 hours; otherwise, several liver failure may occur. There are some opioid medications that combine acetaminophen within the medication. You should be aware that many over-the-counter medications have acetaminophen as one of their ingredients and when taken in combination with prescribed medication, this may result in an overdose of acetaminophen.
- Antidepresssants: Some of the older categories of antidepressants may be very helpful in controlling pain; specifically the tricyclic antidepressants. The pain relieving properties of these medications are such that they can relieve pain in doses that are lower than the doses needed to treat depression. These medications are not meant to be taken on an "as needed" basis but must be taken every day whether or not you have pain. Your physician may attempt to lessen some of the side effects, particularly sedation, by having you take these medications at night. There are some other side effects like dry mouth that can be treated with drinking water or fluids. These medications may not be given to patients with certain types of glaucoma. In addition, these medications should never be taken in larger doses than are prescribed.
- Anticonvulsants (Anti-seizure) Medications: These medications can be very helpful for some kinds of nerve type pain (such as burning, shooting pain). These medications also are not meant to be taken on an "as needed" basis. They should be taken every day whether or not you feel pain. Some of them may have the side effect of drowsiness which often improves with time. Some have the side effect of weight gain. If you have kidney stones or glaucoma, be sure to tell your doctor as there are some anticonvulsants that are not recommended to be given under those conditions. The newer anticonvulsants do not need liver monitoring but required caution if given to patients with kidney disease.
- Muscle Relaxants: These medications are most often used in the acute setting of muscle spasm. The most common side effect seen with these medications is drowsiness.
- Opioids: When used appropriately, opioids may be very effective in controlling certain types of chronic pain. They tend to be less effective or require higher doses in nerve type pain. For pain is present all day and night, a long acting opioid is usually recommended. One of the most frequent side effects is constipation, which if mild may be treated by drinking lots of liquids, but may need to be treated with medications. Drowsiness is another side effect which often gets better over time as you get used to the medication. Excessive drowsiness should be discussed with your physician. Nausea is another side effect which may be difficult to treat and may require changing to another opioid.
3. If I am taking narcotic (opioid) medication for chronic pain, does that mean I am addicted?
Taking opioids in the way that they have been prescribed by your doctor for the treatment of chronic pain is associated with a very low risk of becoming addicted to those opioids. There are some predisposing factors to opioid addiction. These include having a history or a family history of substance abuse or of certain psychiatric illnesses. The following are definitions for addiction, tolerance, and physical dependence according to the American Pain Society:
- Addiction has a genetic basis in addition to a psychological aspect to the behavior. Addiction is associated with a craving for the abused substance (such as an opioid), and continued, compulsive use of that substance despite harm to the person using the substance. In addition to having a genetic predisposition, there may be an environmental influence affecting both the development and manifestation of the additive behavior.
- Tolerance occurs after prolonged exposure to a drug. The effects of that drug results in progressive decrease in its effectiveness.
- Physical Dependence is usually seen in the form of drug withdrawal after the drug has been abruptly stopped or rapidly reduced. It can also be seen when an opioid antagonist is given to someone who is taking an opioid. It is a state of adaptation. Withdrawal symptoms last from approximately 6 to a peak of 24 to 72 hours after the drug has been withdrawn. Some of the symptoms include nausea, vomiting, sweating, abdominal pain or diarrhea and can occur after taking the opioid for as short a period as 2 weeks. It is not a sign of addiction.
If you are prescribed opioids by your doctor, you are to take the opioids as they have been prescribed. If your pain continues despite taking the opioid, it is inadvisable to take more opioid than prescribed without first seeking the advice of your doctor. Taking a long-acting opioid a few times per day is less likely to give the sensation of euphoria that may be associated with some short acting opioids. Long-acting opioids are not meant to be taken on an "as needed" basis and should be taken whether or not you have pain and should not be taken more frequently than prescribed by your doctor. Constipation is one of the more frequently seen side effects of chronic opioid use, remedies, such as stool softeners and stimulants, are available.
4. What are some of the more common nerve block procedures for the treatment of chronic pain? What are some of the common side effects associated with these nerve blocks?
The vast majority of injections done for the diagnosis or treatment of chronic pain are performed on an outpatient basis. Some are performed on inpatients, who may be already hospitalized for other reasons. All of them may be performed under fluoroscopic (x-ray) guidance but are sometime performed in the office without x-ray. For any nerve block, you need to tell your doctor if you are allergic to contrast dye or if you think you may be pregnant. Below is a brief description of some of the more commonly performed nerve blocks by pain management specialists.
- Epidural Steroid injection: Epidural steroid injection is an injection performed in the back or neck in an attempt to place some anti-inflammatory steroid with or without a local anesthetic into the epidural space close to the inflamed area that is causing the pain. These injections are generally done for pain involving the back and leg or the neck and arm/hand. They may be done under x-ray guidance. Common side effects include soreness of the back or neck at the point where the needle enters the skin, there may be some temporary numbness in the involved extremity but persistent numbness or weakness (lasting over 8 hours) should be reported to your doctor. Epidural steroid injections may be placed in the lumbar (low back), thoracic (mid back), or cervical (neck) regions.
- Facet Joint Injection: The facet joints assist with movement of the spine both in the neck and back. Injection into these joints can provide relief of neck and back pain; these injections are always performed under x-ray guidance. Common side effects include soreness in the neck or back when the needle was inserted. You will be on your stomach for this injection if it is done for back pain; however you may either be on your stomach or back if the injection is performed for neck pain, depending on the preference of the physician. A needle is placed in your neck or back and advanced to the level of the joint under x-ray visualization. Contrast dye is used if the needle is put within the joint, and sometimes used if the injection is designed to numb the nerves to the joint. This block is often a diagnostic block and a more long lasting injection may be indicated if you have significant pain relief from this injection.
- Lumbar Sympathetic Block: A lumbar sympathetic nerve block is performed for pain in the leg that is thought to be caused by complex regional pain syndrome type I (or CRPS I). These injections are often performed under fluoroscopic (x-ray) guidance. Local anesthetic is placed near to the lumbar sympathetic chain in order to relieve the pain. Your leg will likely become warm immediately following the injection: this is an expected effect and not a complication. Back soreness is one of the more common side effects. If you feel any sharp pains down your leg or to your groin during the injection, you should let the physician know immediately. There may be some temporary numbness following the injection but if there is persistent numbness or weakness (> 8 hours) the doctor should be notified. You will be lying on your stomach for this injection. The injection is done from the back, in the lower aspect of the back. A needle is placed, often under x-ray guidance, to a spot just to the side and approaching the front part of the spine where the ganglion is located. If it is done under x-ray, a small amount of dye is injected to make sure the needle is in the right spot. After the doctor is satisfied that the contrast dye is in the right place, they will inject numbing medicine then remove the needle.
- Celiac Plexus Block: A celiac plexus block is generally performed to relieve pain in patients with cancer of the pancreas or other chronic abdominal pains. A needle is placed via your back that deposits numbing medicine to the area of a group of nerves called the celiac plexus. This injection is often performed as a diagnostic injection to see whether a more permanent injection may help with the pain. If it provides significant pain relief then the more long lasting injection may be done. This injection is usually performed under x-ray guidance. You will be lying on your stomach for this injection. The needle is place via the mid back and placed just in front of the spine. Contrast dye is injected to confirm that the needle is in the right spot; followed by some numbing medicine.
- Stellate Ganglion Block: A stellate ganglion block is an injection that can be performed for the diagnosis of complex regional pain syndrome of the arm or hand or for treatment of pain to that area. It can also be used to help to improve blood flow to the hand or arm in certain conditions that result in poor circulation of the hand. Side effects may include soreness in the neck where the needle was placed. In some instances the side effects may include droopiness of your eyelid on the side that is injected, along with a temporarily stuffy nose and sometimes temporary difficulty in swallowing. This injection is performed with or without x-ray guidance. You will be lying on your back for this injection with your mouth slightly open. It is very helpful to the doctor if you try not to swallow during the injection. If this injection is performed under x-ray the doctor will first inject a small amount of contrast to confirm the placement of the needle then inject some numbing medicine.
5. Will I receive a bill from the pain management specialist?
Your pain management specialist is a physician specialist like your surgeon or internist, and you probably will receive a bill for your pain management specialist's professional service as you would from your other physicians. If you have any financial concerns, your pain management specialist or an office staff member will answer your questions.