Twenty some odd years ago, the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the American Pain Society, two large pain-related professional organizations, teamed up to agree upon what it means to have both chronic pain and be addicted to opioid pain medications at the same time.1 They did it because addiction to opioid medications when patients are prescribed them for legitimate health reasons seems different than addiction to other substances like alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, or even illegally obtained opioid medications when not used for pain. The difference involves the phenomena of tolerance, physical dependence, and withdrawal, which in part serve as criteria for the diagnosis of addiction when it comes to all other substances.
The most vexing of all questions in the debate over long-term opioid management for pain is subtle, difficult to articulate, and rarely considered. It lies at the heart of whether and how we maintain patients with severe pain on long-term opioids or whether we help them learn to self-manage it instead.
This most vexing of questions involves how we understand the nature of pain severity and its relationship to its degree of tolerability in the long-term opioid management patient. For depending on how we understand the intolerability of severe pain, it leads to contradictory treatment considerations among well-meaning, competent patients and providers, and even within the larger society.
What is biofeedback?
Biofeedback is a treatment used for a variety of chronic pain and other medical conditions that consists of sensors placed on the patient’s body while physiological data is viewed on a computer screen or other monitor in real time. It is considered a self-regulatory therapy because it is a tool for increasing awareness of and changing individual physiological responses to reduce symptoms or improve performance. The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB), the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (BCIA), and International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) provide this standard definition:
"A community is a group of people banded together by gifts and stories."
It is embedded in our human history: stories. Even before modern day, numerous cultures have shared history lessons in the form of stories. By sharing wisdom and experiences, stories can build communities. In essence, individuals no longer feel alone; they feel a sense of belonging and connection. Those stories can generate emotion and help people cope with life's complexities.
On initial reaction, it might seem absurd to talk about the benefits of self-managing chronic pain without opioid medications. "What," one might ask, "would you use to reduce pain? You wouldn't want to live the rest of your life in pain, would you?" The topic seems absurd because pain reduction reflexively seems so important. Indeed, pain reduction from the use of opioids seems so important that it trumps everything else, even problems associated with the use of opioids.
Patients with chronic pain, their healthcare providers, and society, more generally, are all typically concerned about addiction to opioid pain medications. This concern is well founded. Once commonly thought of as rare,1, 2 it is now generally accepted that the true rate of addiction to such medications is much higher than what was once thought.3, 4 The issue of addiction to prescription opioid pain medications generates considerable debate among the stakeholders in the field of chronic pain management. There are strong voices for the continued use of such medications despite the rate of addiction and strong voices against the continued use of these medications because of the rate of addiction.
Teaching People About Pain
Pain is a normal human experience. Without the ability to experience pain, people would not survive. Living in pain, however, is not normal.1 Pain that lasts beyond the normal healing time of tissues is called chronic or persistent pain. Worldwide, chronic pain is increasing. In the US alone, chronic pain has doubled in the last 15-20 years.2 With this increase, comes increased cost. Within Medicare, a US government-based insurance, epidural steroid (pain) injections have increased 629% in the last five years and the use of opioids (for example, hydrocodone and oxycodone) is up 423%.1 This increase is not isolated to the US and represents a global concern. In the shadow of this growing epidemic, we are faced with serious questions. Why is chronic pain increasing? Why are some of our most heroic treatments (opioids, injections, surgery, amputations, etc.) not working? The answer to these questions is complex and contains a variety of issues.
In chronic pain management, there are different types of pain clinics. Among others, there are two that seem almost diametrically opposed in their treatment of patients – even for patients with the same chronic pain conditions. One type of pain clinic is the chronic opioid management clinic. These types of clinics start chronic pain patients on opioids or take over the prescribing of the medications from other providers and subsequently maintain patients on chronic opioid management indefinitely. The other type of pain clinic is the interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation program. They admit the same kinds of chronic pain patients and, instead of maintaining them on chronic opioid management, they taper opioids while teaching patients how to successfully self-manage pain.