With as many as 100 million sufferers in the United States alone, chronic pain is an epidemic. If you’re reading this, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you suffer with chronic pain yourself, or care for someone who does, in which case you’ll know that chronic pain is highly complicated, highly individual, and even highly subjective.
Likely, you’ve lived through the inevitable evolution: when one approach does not work, you move to the next. In time, for many patients, due to a process of disappointing outcome after disappointing outcome, chronic pain begins to take on an emotional component that only makes the situation worse. Discouragement, depression, and anxiety often add fuel to an already growing fire. Sometimes, this is exacerbated by the frustration of both patients and clinicians with limited outcomes and few options. Over times, the emotions themselves may contribute to or cause pain.
The condition of chronic pain sufferers, when faced with months, years, or decades of chronic pain, often becomes increasingly complicated as they develop comorbidities and side effects. Because they hurt, they move less, becoming increasingly sedentary. Sleep is compromised. The common side effect of weight gain adds more burden to an already strained and hurting body. This is compounded further by increased mental anguish, isolation, and limitation, which prevents them from enjoying the life they would otherwise love to be living.
In the long term, medications may make this cascade of decline even more profound. They can cause cognitive impairment, disrupted sleep, constipation or compromised digestion, and a feeling of being numbed out. This often leads chronic pain sufferers to begin feeling, to some degree or another, trapped in their bodies, caged by a life that they would never have chosen, and angry that nothing and no one can help them. Has this been your case or the case of someone you care for? If so, I am sorry, and please know you are not alone.
Inadequate Solutions Breed Frustration and Resignation
Chronic pain is a disease. Yet, very people die directly from chronic pain itself (people may die from terminal illnesses associated with chronic pain, or see their lives shortened due to a lack of mobility and related factors), so it has received minuscule research investment.
Much of the research and training on chronic pain is funded by pharmaceutical companies, who may not have an overriding interest in maintaining neutrality. There is too little formal training and discussion dedicated to pain in medical schools and other professional education, and the education most physicians receive relates primarily to acute pain, not chronic pain, and is based on outdated theories and models. The latest scientific research on chronic pain has revealed it to be a problem of the brain, yet most of the therapies address only the tissue or—in the case of pharmaceuticals—impact on the entire chemistry of the body.
Neuroscientists now know that in chronic pain, the brain becomes fixated on and “wired” to expect pain. It has less to do with the tissues in which the pain is being felt, even when those tissues have been subject to some pathology or trauma. Instead, it is more about the brain’s expectation of pain. Since the brain expects the pain, the body and tissues react, and we have the beginning of what becomes a very vicious loop of pain expectation and body systems reaction, each feeding on the other.
Due to the inadequacies of any single approach to chronic pain, a multidisciplinary approach has become popular. Given the complexity of pain, this is a sensible approach, and I applaud and honor the collaboration. Truthfully, more interdisciplinary collaboration is needed in healthcare. Yet the problem continues and, ultimately, the cost and impact of chronic pain grows. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, ultimately, each one of these solutions, whether delivered individually, consecutively, or concurrently, is inadequate.
Pharmaceutical approaches, surgery, injections, stem cells, biologics, physical manipulation, movement, nutrition, sleep, mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, and more all provide some relief. Yet all are inadequate, incomplete, or not lasting. As professionals and patients realize that these approaches are not consistently or wholly effective, the conversation for the sufferer may unintentionally shift toward resignation. Our chronic pain sufferer is left to either accept a life of pain or continue on an endless journey of mediocre therapies.
Tackling Chronic Pain via the Brain
If the brain is the source of chronic pain, can it be addressed through the brain? What if the brain of the chronic pain sufferer could be hacked, reprogrammed, rewired, and restored until it registered a more normalized perception of the pain response in the body? What if that solution required no drugs, needles, or surgery? What if that solution was safe, consistently effective, and totally noninvasive?
Would it change the world? Would it improve and save millions of lives?
The good news for anyone who is dealing with chronic pain or those who love someone in chronic pain is that such a solution does exist.
Is it perfect? No.
But it is the safest, most consistently effective and appealing therapy for chronic pain. And if it can be successfully understood, properly adopted, and capitalized, it can change the world and many millions of lives along the way.
P. Brendon Lundberg is a previous chronic pain sufferer with deep experience in healthcare management, marketing, business development, and sales. He played key operational and business development roles for two award-winning companies and was director of sales and marketing for a medical start-up. Brendon lives with his wife and children near Portland, Oregon.