Friday, November 16, 2007

Now back to function.. Part I

In the Butler blog is a post about painful words, how they conjure up horrible imaginings in peoples' minds, create needless stress and worsen pain. A comment from a reader of this blog about his knee pain, knee replacement, his surgeon's words reflecting insecurities about not being able to "fix" his patient's pain, and the reader's battle to withdraw from heavy pain meds came to mind immediately.

...I realized after months of difficult recovery from my joint replacement that one of the key things my surgeon said to me was "I am worried about our ability to control your pain". He is a great surgeon, and meant well. But he played directly into strong fears that I had about the surgery already. I obsessed on the idea that my pain might be uncontrollable. I believe that contributed a lot to me winding up on 350 mg per day of oxycodone.
I'm doing much better now and have been off the oxycodone for 5 weeks.

A battle is being fought by a tiny group of people in lots of ways, including through blogs (like this one), comprised of practitioners (myself among them) whose main agenda is to deconstruct pain for the sake of having less of it around perpetuating useless suffering. We are fighting an abstract battle, one of memes: the mindless and needless enticement of persistent pain into permanent suffering, through simple correctable things like word choice. We are trying to change this by presenting, studying, arguing, pointing out current pain science, science which refutes an entire historical mind set not only guilty of permitting needless suffering, but also of giving rise to a professionally reinforced sense of helplessness and avoidable drug use in patients.

There are at least two layers to this:

1. Clear metaphor

Some of the metaphors patients use are easy enough to understand as such: when someone says something like, "It feels as though I have an icepick through my shoulder here and a fish hook stuck in it back here", it's obvious both to them and to the practitioner that they have no such thing really - instead they are explaining how their pain "feels" to them. The practitioner response is often a little smile at the colorful language; if the patient is insistent after a few treatment attempts (based on having diligently tried to find and treat the offending tissue) the practitioner rapidly begins to feel helpless and either refers on or else decides the patient must be crazy with all that icepick talk.

At least three scenarios can ensue from here:

a). With any luck the patient will be referred to a PT who understands pain, and can reassure the patient that perhaps that's really all it amounts to. A few little manual therapy maneuvers, voilá, some cranky neural tissue somewhere in the vicinity has more oxygen, the brain maps all overlap perfectly again, the protective motor reflexes dissolve, needless ion channels vanish, stress is gone, all is well, patient can move the shoulder just fine again. Metaphoric icepick and fishhook are gone as if they had never been there, even as "just" a feeling or sensation that was turned into an image in the patient's mind to help him or her communicate verbally something ineffable like pain that has no words of its own.

b). In scenario two, the patient may be referred for further imaging and possibly surgery. Diligent medical practitioners will diligently look for and usually find some aspect of the patient's body that they decide must be responsible for the pain, and will schedule a surgical intervention. They may be referred before or after to a PT who closely follows the medical tissue-based model for pain. The PT will do all sorts of things to try to help, but if their word choice is not careful, they will merely reinforce pain while trying to get the patient to do all sorts of activities in spite of the pain.

c). In scenario three, the patient is referred to a psychiatrist.

Stay tuned for Part II, Unclear metaphor.

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