13 Things Your Pain Doctor Won’t Tell You

Learn what pain doctors are really thinking when you visit them, and how you can better manage your symptoms.

By Michelle Crouch | Reader's Digest Magazine | February 2013

1. Sure, I can give you some meds to dampen the pain.

But the best doctors will talk to you about the cause, whether it’s your lack of activity, your stress level, a condition like arthritis, or your mattress.

2. Heat or ice?

Use an ice pack for acute injuries, to minimize blood flow and reduce swelling and pain. Use heat to loosen muscles and stiff joints and help you feel more mobile.

3. Any doctor can hang a shingle that says “I treat pain.”

 Look for doctors who are board-certified in pain medicine or who did a fellowship in something pain-related.

4. Your back and neck (and often shoulder) pain likely have little or nothing to do with your abnormal MRI.

Studies show that if you perform an MRI on any 100 people, you’ll find an abnormality in about 90% of them, even if they’re not experiencing any pain.

5. Reconsider before asking for a prescription.

The latest research shows that taking opioid pain meds (like Vicodin and OxyContin) for chronic pain can change the brain, damaging its ability to feel pleasure and leading to a craving for more drugs. A few studies found that long-term use can actually lead to increased back or neck pain.

6. In mild pain? Play word games or another favorite challenging puzzle.

When you distract your brain, you don’t hurt as much. Another activity that helps: watching a funny TV show.

7. Before you praise me for curing your back pain, remember this: It may have gone away on it’s own.

Approximately 90% of low-back pain subsides within 12 weeks without medical intervention.

8. If you have chronic pain, consider experimenting with dietary changes.

Eliminate dairy for a few weeks, then reintroduce it and see how you feel. Do the same with wheat, red meat, shellfish, citrus, peanuts, caffeine, and alcohol, one at a time. If your pain gets worse when you add back a food, it may be contributing to your problem.

9. If I specialize in prescribing narcotics, giving injections, or doing surgery, that’s probably what I’m going to recommend.

But there are dozens of other effective options like massage, physical therapy, chiropractic, acupuncture, spinal cord stimulators, and behavioral therapy.

10. Think twice about having surgery, especially on your back or spine.

I’m in a practice with only three doctors, and between us, we have over 1,000 patients who had back surgery who wish they never had. In a Consumer Reports survey, just 60% of those who had back surgery were completely or very satisfied with the results.

11. Pain is mental too.

So you may want to explore psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, and even self-hypnosis.

12. If the doctor takes only cash (not insurance) and hands you a prescription after just a few minutes, you may be at a pill mill, not a full-service pain clinic.

Most legitimate pain clinics take insurance and offer treatments beyond medication.

13. Your pain will improve with the right kind of exercise,

and it will probably feel worse if you won’t get a good night’s sleep.

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