How we manage chronic pain in the United States has been both culprit and a source of tension for treatment providers who understand the complexities of this issue for those in recovery. Beginning in 1995, big pharma began a daring push for the newest drug in their pain management arsenal with the release of OxyContin, a long-lasting opioid pain reliever. The push for OxyContin, known today on the street as ‘hillbilly heroin,’ led those who could no longer acquire the highly addictive substance from their doctors to try heroin.
Apart from the trouble brewing in this country with the significant increase in prescription and illicit drug abuse, those who sought medical help for chronic pain, are left with fewer options once they’re in recovery. In some cases, doctors under-prescribe medications; and in other cases, they are unaware of a person’s recovery status and may prescribe an addictive substance.
Everyone deserves a decent quality of life. At the same time, those who have achieved sobriety should not be put at an unnecessary risk of relapse. This poses a challenge to the medical establishment. How does someone manage chronic pain while in recovery? And what sort of taboos exist that block effective pain management for those in recovery?
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Understanding Pain And The Recovery Process
Those in recovery who suffer from unresolved chronic pain must balance the physical and psychological ramifications of former drug use with the need for an improved pain management strategy. Tolerances developed while a patient was abusing drugs typically create a need for higher dosages to counter the effects of pain. Complicating the issue are the effects of chronic pain which include insomnia, changes in mood and mental health (including depression and anxiety), cardiovascular decline, and sexual dysfunction.
Long-term side effects of untreated chronic pain:
- Changes in mood
- Depression, anxiety, and mental health changes
- Cardiovascular decline
- Sexual dysfunction
Chronic pain is often the leading culprit in addiction. Like an addiction, the prevalence of chronic pain appears to correlate with similar risk factors. Central nervous system dysfunction, genetics, and mood disorders are all linked both to a higher incidence of addiction and chronic pain. Unfortunately, for someone who began taking drugs to combat pain, as they develop a tolerance for the drug, they experience an increase not only in the severity of withdrawal symptoms but in the pain as well.
Like the recovery process, in which an individual learns to cope with events in life, so must they learn to cope with pain. This doesn’t mean someone should be permitted to suffer. It means good coping strategies in conjunction with medical or non-medical pain management can play a role in reducing the physical and psychological side effects of chronic pain.
Medical Pain Management For Someone In Recovery
Severe chronic pain is often treated with an opioid analgesic, which can trigger a relapse. Instead, patients who are in recovery may be treated with a non-opioid medication to reduce the severity of the episodes, while addressing the core issues generating the pain. Some types of medications that appear to be somewhat effective in replacing opioid drugs include medications normally preferred in the treatment of epilepsy, depression, and heart arrhythmias.
The problem, however, is inherent in the fact that most people who have developed a drug dependency require higher doses of pain medication to treat the pain. And doctors, not well-acquainted with drug addiction, can make one of two critical mistakes. They may fail to treat the pain because they stereotype or pass judgment and do not understand the recovery process, or they may apply the same pain management strategy for a recovering drug-addicted person as with any patient, including the use of opioid medications.
To maintain sobriety while seeking treatment for chronic pain, maintaining one compassionate physician can avoid confusion and prevent relapse by avoiding redundant medications. A doctor may periodically taper a dose to assess pain levels if issues contributing to pain are being resolved.
An individual receiving treatment for end of life care has the right to receive adequate pain management, regardless of addiction risk.
Non-medical Pain Management For Someone In Recovery
Someone in recovery seeking a successful pain management strategy will likely benefit from alternative therapies used in conjunction with medical interventions. Non-medical options for pain relief include the use of heat or cold to reduce inflammation or swelling, yoga and other relaxation techniques, chiropractic care, massage, guided meditation and imagery exercises, biofeedback, hypnotherapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, and exercise. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which can be effective for treating addiction, is also effective in treating chronic pain due to the similarities in brain structure that may contribute to both issues.
Many of this alternative or co-therapies have proven effective in treating not only the physiological processes that generate pain but also in aiding in the emotional well-being of the individual in recovery.
Management of Chronic Pain in Recovery May Include:
- Non-opioid medications
- Heat or cold compresses
- Chiropractic care
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
If you are seeking help for you are in recovery and seeking help for chronic pain, try first talking with your sponsor or other treatment professional about the best options for physicians who understand how to manage pain for a person in recovery. A good doctor should show compassion and offer a non-judgmental approach to helping you get free from pain. In some cases, opioid medications may be the only viable option for pain relief.
If you or someone you love is living with addiction, Vertava Health is an online resource designed to connect you with the professional support and treatment options available nearest you. Get started on a path toward a successful recovery today by contacting Vertava Health; discover a life free from addiction.