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No clear answers for treating chronic pain

June 9, 2008 |  2:38 pm

Chronic or recurrent pain affects more than 75 million Americans. That fact has received a lot of attention among health professionals in the last decade. But, according to a new study, doctors often aren't sure what treatments will help their individual patients.

The study, in the June issue of Journal of General Internal Medicine, drew several conclusions:

  • None of the clinical trials on opioid pain-relievers, such as morphine, Percocet and Vicodin, lasted longer than four months, even though most people with chronic pain have symptoms for a long time (that's why they call it chronic) and are prescribed these drugs for long periods of time.
  • There's a dearth of information on herbal remedies versus other pain medications in spite of the fact that management of chronic pain is one of the major reasons people turn to alternative medicine.
  • Chronic pain often goes hand-in-hand with major depression, but little is known about the impact of treating both the pain and the depression together.
  • Pain assessments, such as 0-to-10 scales, have become very popular. But studies suggest that using the assessments may have little effect on treatment of the patient's pain.

Says the study's author, Matthew J. Blair, of Indiana University School of Medicine:

Many primary care doctors "have not been well trained in pain management. And while many are paying more attention to pain than ever before. . . they don't know what treatment will work for a given patient. They want guidance and we found very limited information."

The lesson here may be to turn to a pain specialist for help in managing chronic pain -- if you have health insurance that will cover that, of course.

- Shari Roan