For all the time and attention that’s placed on whether opioids should be prescribed or even removed from the market, we must put equal – if not greater – emphasis on enhancing access to non-opioid pain treatments. Not prescribing opioids doesn’t solve or eliminate the root issue and reason many people are on painkillers to begin with—chronic pain.
Fifty million Americans live in chronic, debilitating pain. For many, their pain is so relentless that suicide feels like their only option. One in 10 suicides is linked to chronic pain. We have to do better.
For many chronic pain sufferers, seeking relief involves endless medical appointments and trial and error with medications, narcotics, and pain management techniques. Some treatments might help temporarily mask the pain but often don’t address what’s causing it in the first place—and the pain comes rushing back.
We can’t accept a reality where there are seemingly only two choices for chronic pain sufferers—being dependent on pain medication or living a life ruled by pain. We can and should do more to enhance access to non-opioid pain treatments.
As physicians, we have to prioritize identifying and repairing the actual source of the pain—not just masking it with pain medications or nerve blocks. For many people, the source of chronic pain is an injured nerve, but most have no idea. Nerve injuries are common and occur frequently as the result of a traumatic injury or previous surgery but too often go unrecognized as the root cause. People with pain caused by injured nerves are more likely to take opioids and multiple pain medications but report less pain relief from their medications.
Most people —even physicians—don’t know that nerves can be surgically repaired, fixing the root cause of the pain rather than just masking the symptom. Surgical nerve repair has the potential to help people live pain-free and dramatically improve their quality of life. Yet, the consideration of nerve surgery to address pain caused by injured nerves is largely absent from medical algorithms and consensus recommendations. This calls for better interdisciplinary care and collaboration with pain specialists to include nerve surgery in treatment algorithms.
If you’re a medical professional or know someone living with chronic pain, or if you suffer from chronic pain, I implore you to learn about nerve damage and surgical nerve repair options. Some nerve surgeons specialize in resolving pain caused by nerve damage, whose mission is to help people permanently end their chronic pain.
As physicians, we put a lot of emphasis on prudently prescribing opioids. This is necessary, sensible, and admirable, but we also need to shine a brighter spotlight on permanent solutions for pain—giving people hope of living fuller, happier lives that are not defined by pain.
Ivica Ducic is a plastic surgeon and nerve surgery expert.
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