By Sandy K. Johnson

Roughly 100 million American adults suffer from chronic pain, half on a daily basis. Chronic pain is more prevalent than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease combined.

alternatives-speakersThe quickest way for doctors to treat chronic pain has for years been a prescription for opioids. But that led to abuses and, ultimately, a full-blown public health crisis.

Journalists can help educate readers about alternatives to opioids to manage chronic pain. “Pain needs to be treated as a bio-psycho-social condition,” said Dr. Linda Porter, director of the Office of Pain Policy, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. She helped develop the National Pain Strategy released in early 2016.

That requires education, from patients to physicians. “Doctors don’t set out to addict their patients,” noted Joanne Kenen, executive editor for health care at Politico. It’s necessary to change the existing culture of prescribing to one of a multi-disciplinary approach to treat people with chronic pain.

Options run the gamut:

  • Opioids, yes, following the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that recommend lower dosages and limited or no refills.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. Many of these are over-the-counter, such as Aleve and Advil. These drugs can have serious side effects, too, but not addiction. Again, lower doses are recommended.
  • Physical therapy, yoga, massage, acupuncture. Research from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health shows benefits from these therapies, which usually are not covered by insurance.
  • Steroids, trigger point injections and neurostimulators are also options.

Porter said public payers such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would likely have to lead the way in paying for therapies like acupuncture or massage. Private insurers might follow.

Kenen pointed out that states are leading the way on related health issues, such as regulating opioids and running prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs).

Journalists can also consult organizations such as the American Chronic Pain Association and the American Pain Society for resources for reporting on alternatives to opioids in pain management.