Per the CDC, 11 to 40 percent of Americans struggle with chronic pain. All physicians must treat patients with chronic pain, whether they are spine surgeons or primary care physicians. It is a disease we can not escape.
We do not have a one-time pill to fix chronic pain.
Unlike other diseases, we do not necessarily have a cure for chronic pain. In medical school and residency, we are provided with very little education on treating one of the more common ailments Americans deal with. Some physicians will attempt to treat chronic pain in their office, while others will refer these patients to pain management specialists or surgeons to address their patients’ pain.
“Take as directed.”
In medicine, we quickly prescribe our patients’ medications, injections, and surgical procedures to address chronic pain, yet we fail to resolve the source of their pain completely. We often apply expensive band-aids to treat chronic pain without providing long-term solutions.
Their pain continues.
Studies have shown that chronic pain is best treated with a multidisciplinary approach. Treatment for chronic pain can be challenging in the current state of health care, and it has led to many physicians being asked to manage chronic pain they would prefer not to.
Listening is a treatment option.
We don’t get paid extra to listen to patients about their chronic pain, but we should. We all dread those patients that consume our time in the clinic. Although taking the time to listen to our patients with chronic pain may not be financially rewarding, we should advocate for it. Sometimes listening to one’s pain can bring about significant healing effects. That time spent with patients listening to their complaints of pain will likely not be reflected in our online reviews. Instead, we seek to be internally rewarded when patients improve over time without the more considerable secondary gains.
Everything is worth sharing.
During my early career, I managed a patient that had a long, one-year recovery from a shoulder fracture. After we got the patient to heal, the family presented me with an engraved wooden keepsake box to store my gifts and cards from patients. At first, I thought it was silly… Why would I care to keep these things from my patients? I no longer feel the keepsake box is silly. As my career continues, I greatly enjoy adding items from my patients to this box. And when I am down, I reach into that box and am reminded of some of the great patients I have had the joy of treating.
Unexpected poetry from a patient.
One day a patient of mine brought me a poem written in pencil on college-ruled paper. I had never done surgery on this patient nor provided him with opioids to treat his chronic pain. Over the years, I prescribed physical therapy, educated him about the benefits of yoga, meditation, aquatic therapy, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco. I mostly listened to him for 20 minutes every three months about his aches, family, and life’s drama. I never knew the actual effects I had on this patient until recently. Without my knowledge, the patient had started to write poetry. To my surprise, he brought me a poem I will share with you.
The poem: chronic pain
I was caught in the past
I couldn’t face the day
My thoughts were racing fast
And I had so much to say
I was used and abused
I’ll never forget to this day
I was lost and confused
Till you showed me the way
You took the extra time
And listened to my pain
Your words eased my mind
And now I can see again
You were there for me
When I needed a friend
You set my spirit free
And I found solace again
Although the night is long
I know I’ll make it through
And I’ll remain strong
Because of friends like you
I share these words with you
I know I can always confide in you
After reading it the first time, my eyes began to tear up. Poetry had never sounded so beautiful to me. I never expected to touch someone’s life just by listening to them. I was taught in medical school to prescribe and in residency to operate, but this patient needed someone to listen to them.
This poem is a touching tribute to all who take the time to listen to patients with chronic pain. I hope that sharing this with you encourages other physicians to share the creative work of their patients.
Aaron Morgenstein is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and founder, FlexMedStaff.com, a fully transparent and free marketplace for physicians to find new clinical and non-clinical opportunities to improve work-life balance. Contact Aaron here.