High-Tech Treatment Options
Over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help ease headaches and occasional aches and pains. Depending on your chronic pain and other medical conditions, the pain medicine specialist may prescribe a variety of treatment options.
Some of the latest high-tech methods for relieving chronic pain include:
- Radio Waves – Radiofrequency ablation involves heating a tiny area of nerve tissue, which short circuits pain signals. Using X-ray guidance, the pain medicine specialist inserts a needle next to the nerve responsible for the pain and burns it using an electric current created by radio waves. The pain relief can last for up to one year.
- Blocking the Pain – Under X-ray guidance, pain medicine physicians can inject numbing medication that blocks or dampens pain, and might even stop chronic pain from developing. The location of the injection depends on the source and type of pain. For example, pain in the arm or face can be relieved by blocking nerves in the neck. Chronic abdominal pain or pain from cancers such as pancreatic cancer can be relieved by an injection into the nerves supplying the abdomen. Relief may require a series of injections and repeated treatment.
- Electric Signals – Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation can provide short-term pain relief, especially for various types of muscle pain, by sending low-voltage electric signals from a small device to the painful area through pads attached to the skin. The patient feels little pulses when the device is on. While researchers aren’t sure why it works, they think it may either interrupt the nerve signals to the brain or stimulate the production of “feel good” endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers.
- Spinal Cord Stimulation – When other methods fail, a pain medicine specialist might recommend spinal cord stimulation (SCS), which uses a pacemaker-like device that replaces the pain with a more tolerable sensation, typically a tingling or massage-like feeling. The physician implants the device in the lower back, attaching it to tiny wires that are located in the spinal canal. When patients are feeling pain, they can use a remote control to send signals to the painful area. This technique can help with back pain as well as neuropathy — nerve damage in the legs that causes numbness and pain — which is common in people with diabetes.
- High-Frequency Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS) – A study published in Anesthesiology, the medical journal of the ASA, showed that a special high-frequency form of SCS provided significantly greater long-term relief for both chronic back and leg pain compared with traditional low-frequency SCS. The high-frequency SCS also relieved pain without introducing the tingling or other stimulation-induced sensation that some patients find distracting.
- Pain Pumps – Special pumps can be implanted that allow a patient to push a button and deliver local anesthetics, narcotics and other pain medications to the spinal cord. This can bring relief while avoiding the side effects that often come with taking these drugs by mouth. Patients also get a psychological boost by having direct control over their pain. These spinal drug pumps are most often used by people with cancer pain, but also by patients with other types of pain who had side effects when taking medication.
- Future solutions – One of the most promising research areas involves harvesting stem cells from a patient’s bone marrow and injecting them into an area, such as the lower back, that has become painful because tissue has deteriorated. The hope is that the stem cells will build new, healthy tissue and relieve pain for good.
Comprehensive Pain Management Plans
Complementary non-drug therapies may help with chronic pain as well. Some people find relief with:
- Physical therapy: A physiatrist or physical therapist may be able to create an exercise program that helps you improve your ability to function and decreases your pain. Whirlpools, ultrasound and deep-muscle massage may help, too.
- Acupuncture: You may find relief from acupuncture, in which very thin needles are placed at different points on the skin to interrupt pain signals.
- Surgery: When other treatments aren’t effective, surgery can be performed to correct the abnormalities in your body that may be responsible for your pain.
A pain medicine specialist may also recommend other methods that can help you cope with and overcome chronic pain, such as psychological therapy, relaxation techniques and biofeedback.