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The stress of living with chronic pain

Posted at 10:29 AM, Mar 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-14 10:29:27-04

It's a story you'll hear across Mid-Michigan and across the country.

"I originally hurt my back at work and they told me it was a sprain, and I kind of went downhill after that," says Shirley.

Downhill into a spiral of pain: chronic, nagging, constant. Shirley from Parma, who asked us not to be on camera, is just looking for relief.

"I'm not asking for all the pain to go away 'cus nothing can take it all away," she says, "I just want to be able to get up, clean my house."

She's been searching for an answer for years. Eventually, Shirley says her doctor stopped prescribing pain medication, and never explained why.

"It's not like a take them on a daily basis," she says, "I take them when I really, really, really hurt."

Many say they can't get the medication they desperately need. But, with growing concern over opioid abuse and addiction problems, where does this leave people who need this medicine?

Doctors say in recent years, there's been a general move away from prescribing prescription medications like opioids.

"Overtime, we've learned that chronic pain isn't best managed by chronic opioids," says Dr. John Jerome, Ph.D. with Compass Rehabilitation Center.

Dr. Jerome has been working as a pain psychologist for 35 years. He understands the power of pain.

"Pain affects your thinking, it affects your mood," the doctors says.

He works alongside Dr. Ryan G. Topham, M.D. at Compass Rehabilitation Center in East Lansing. Because it's easy to build up a tolerance to prescription opioids, the Center's philosophy is simple, find a different way to treat the pain.

"Physical therapy, acupuncture, interventional treatments, osteopathic manipulation," says the physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist.

Many patients go to pain clinics. Dr. Narasimha Gundamraj, M.D. is a pain doctor at Sparrow Hospital's Pain Clinic.

He says opioids aren't his first option for pain patients, because there are nasty side effects and taking these drugs can lead to addiction. Dr. "Raj" tries other methods like physical therapy and behavioral treatments first.

"If we have to employ pharmacological therapies, then we prefer to use non-opioid therapy as an initial starting point," says the doctor.

If none of this works, then doctors will turn to opioids. There are a lot of hoops patients must jump through, like drug testing.

Dr. Raj says exercise and lifestyle changes play a huge role in relieving some pain.

"When you have accute back pain, physical therapy and exercise therapy helps not only with the pain but it also helps with your generalized sense of well-being," he says.

But for someone like Shirley who can barely move, options seem limited.

Then there's the stigma to consider. When you hear about people taking Percoset or Oxycotin, does a strung out drug addict come to mind?

Viewers told me that's a stereotype they have to live with every day.

One viewer broke her elbow and struggled to find relief, writing "My Dr. wasn't in until Monday. So I was seen by a colleague of hers. I was accused of drug seeking."

Another tells in an email, "People shouldn't suffer because of others problems."

But, doctors say there is hope. Dr. Jerome says the winners are the patients who accept that they have chronic pain.

"It's not going to kill me, it is not going to shorten my life. I have chronic pain. What am I going to do about that chronic pain?" he says.

It's a quest for relief.

Other medical experts say chronic pain is no different than someone suffering from diabetes or high blood pressure.

The bottom line for patients is not to give up. Experts say if you believe you need opioids, talk to your doctor about them, and take them responsibly.

Keep the side effects of these drugs in mind, and remain open to making lifestyle changes or trying alternative therapies. Research has shown that combining approaches is most effective.