Letters from Maine

Pain mismanagement by the numbers


Despite my best efforts to cultivate acquaintances across a broader age group, my social circle still has the somewhat musty odor of septuagenarians. We try to talk about things beyond the weather and grandchildren but pain scenarios surface with unfortunate frequency. Arthritic joints ache, body parts wear out or become diseased and have to be removed or replaced. That stuff can hurt.

There are two pain-related themes that seem to crop up more frequently than you might expect. The first is the unfortunate side effects of opioid medication – most often gastric distress and vomiting, then of course there’s constipation. They seem so common that a good many of my acquaintances just plain refuse to take opioids when they have been prescribed postoperatively because of their vivid memories of the consequences or horror stories friends have told.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

The second theme is the general annoyance with the damn “Please rate your pain from one to ten” request issued by every well-intentioned nurse. Do you mean the pain I am having right now, this second, or last night, or the average over the last day and a half? Or should I be comparing it with when I gave birth 70 years ago, or when I stubbed my toe getting out of the shower last week? And then what are you going to do with my guesstimated number?

It may surprise some of you that 40 years ago there wasn’t a pain scale fetish. But a few observant health care professionals realized that many of our patients were suffering because we weren’t adequately managing their pain. In postoperative situations this was slowing recovery and effecting outcomes. Like good pseudoscientists, they realized that we should first quantify the pain and the notion that no pain should go unrated came into being. Nor should pain go untreated, which is too frequently interpreted as meaning unmedicated.

Pain is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon. Distilling a person’s pain experience to a single number doesn’t make sense, nor does reflexly reaching for a prescription.

For example a systematic review of 61 studies of juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) published in the journal Pediatric Rheumatology found that there was positive relationship between pain and a child’s belief that pain causes harm, disability, and lack of control. Not surprisingly, stress was also associated with pain intensity.

It is a long paper and touches on numerous other associations of varying degrees of strength between parental, social, and other external factors. But, in general, they were not as consistent as those related to a child’s beliefs.

Before, or at least at the same time, we treat a patient’s pain, we should learn more about that patient – his or her concerns, beliefs, and stressors. You and I may have exactly the same hernia operation, but if you have a better understanding of why you are going to feel uncomfortable after the surgery, and understand that not every pain is the result of a complication, I suspect you are more likely to complain of less pain.

The recent JIA study doesn’t claim to suggest therapeutic methods. However, one wonders what the result would be if we could somehow alter a patient’s belief system so that he or she no longer sees pain as always harmful, nor does the patient see himself or herself as powerless to do anything about the pain. To do this experiment we must follow up our robotic request to “rate your pain” with a dialogue in which we learn more about that the patient. Which means probing believes, fears, and stressors.

You can tell me this exercise would be unrealistic and time consuming. But I bet in the long run it will save time. Even if it doesn’t it is the better way to manage pain.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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