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Pain management encompasses pharmacological, nonpharmacological, and other approaches to prevent, reduce, or stop pain sensations.

Pain serves as an alert to potential or actual damage to the body. The definition for damage is quite broad; pain can arise from injury as well as disease. After the message is received and interpreted, further pain can be counter-productive. Pain can have a negative impact on a person's quality of life and impede recovery from illness or injury. Unrelieved pain can become a syndrome in its own right and cause a downward spiral in a person's health and outlook. Managing pain properly facilitates recovery, prevents additional health complications, and improves an individual's quality of life.
What is pain?
Before considering pain management, a review of pain definitions and mechanisms may be useful. Pain is the means by which the peripheral nervous system (PNS) warns the central nervous system (CNS) of injury or potential injury to the body. The CNS comprises the brain and spinal cord, and the PNS is composed of the nerves that stem from and lead into the CNS. The PNS includes all nerves throughout the body except the brain and spinal cord.
A pain message is transmitted to the CNS by special PNS nerve cells called nociceptors. Nociceptors are distributed throughout the body and respond to different stimuli depending on their location. For example, nociceptors that extend from the skin are stimulated by sensations such as pressure, temperature, and chemical changes.
When a nociceptor is stimulated, neurotransmitters are released within the cell. Neurotransmitters are chemicals found within the nervous system that facilitate nerve cell communication. The nociceptor transmits its signal to nerve cells within the spinal cord, which conveys the pain message to the thalamus, a specific region in the brain.
Once the brain has received and processed the pain message and coordinated an appropriate response, pain has served its purpose. The body uses natural pain killers, called endorphins, that are meant to derail further pain messages from the same source. However, these natural pain killers may not adequately dampen a continuing pain message. Also, depending on how the brain has processed the pain information, certain hormones, such as prostaglandins, may be released. These hormones enhance the pain message and play a role in immune system responses to injury, such as inflammation. Certain neurotransmitters, especially substance P and calcitonin gene-related peptide, actively enhance the pain message at the injury site and within the spinal cord.
Pain is generally divided into two categories: acute and chronic. Nociceptive pain, or the pain that is transmitted by nociceptors, is typically called acute pain. This kind of pain is associated with injury, headaches, disease, and many other conditions. It usually resolves once the condition that caused it is resolved.
Following some disorders, pain does not resolve. Even after healing or a cure has been achieved, the brain continues to perceive pain. In this situation, the pain may be considered chronic. The time limit used to define chronic pain typically ranges from three to six months, although some healthcare professionals prefer a more flexible definition, and consider chronic pain as pain that endures beyond a normal healing time. The pain associated with cancer, persistent and degenerative conditions, and neuropathy, or nerve damage, is included in the chronic category. Also, unremitting pain that lacks an identifiable physical cause, such as the majority of cases of low back pain, may be considered chronic. The underlying biochemistry of chronic pain appears to be different from regular nociceptive pain.
Some researchers have said that uninterrupted and unrelenting pain can induce changes in the spinal cord. In the past, intractable pain has been treated by severing a nerve's connection to the CNS. However, the lack of any sensory information being relayed by that nerve can cause pain transmission in the spinal cord to go into overdrive, as evidenced by the phantom limb pain experienced by amputees. Evidence is accumulating that unrelenting pain or the complete lack of nerve signals increases the number of pain receptors in the spinal cord. Nerve cells in the spinal cord may also begin secreting pain-amplifying neurotransmitters independent of actual pain signals from the body. Immune chemicals, primarily cytokines, may play a prominent role in such changes.
Scientists have long recognized a relationship between depression and chronic pain. In 2004, a survey of California adults diagnosed with major depressive disorder revealed that more than one-half of them also suffered from chronic pain.
Managing pain
Considering the different causes and types of pain, as well as its nature and intensity, management can require an interdisciplinary approach. The elements of this approach include treating the underlying cause of pain, pharmacological and nonpharmacological therapies, and some invasive (surgical) procedures.
Treating the cause of pain underpins the idea of managing it. Injuries are repaired, diseases are diagnosed, and certain encounters with pain can be anticipated and treated prophylactically (by prevention). However, there are no guarantees of immediate relief from pain. Recovery can be impeded by pain and quality of life can be damaged. Therefore, pharmacological and other therapies have developed over time to address these aspects of disease and injury.
PHARMACOLOGICAL OPTIONS. Pain-relieving drugs, otherwise called analgesics, include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen, narcotics, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and others. NSAIDs and acetaminophen are available as over-the-counter and prescription medications, and are frequently the initial pharmacological treatment for pain. These drugs can also be used as adjuncts to the other drug therapies, which might require a doctor's prescription.
NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, Nuprin), naproxen sodium (Aleve), and ketoprofen (Orudis KT). These drugs are used to treat pain from inflammation and work by blocking production of pain-enhancing neurotransmitters, such as prostaglandins. Acetaminophen is also effective against pain, but its ability to reduce inflammation is limited.
NSAIDs and acetaminophen are effective for most forms of acute (sharp, but of a short course) pain, but moderate and severe pain may require stronger medication. Narcotics handle intense pain effectively, and are used for cancer pain and acute pain that does not respond to NSAIDs and acetaminophen. Narcotics are classified as either opiates or opioids, and are available only with a doctor's prescription. Opiates include morphine and codeine, which are derived from opium, a substance naturally found in some poppy species. Opioids are synthetic drugs based on the structure of opium. This drug class includes drugs such as oxycodon, methadone, and meperidine (Demerol). In August 2004, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued new guidelines to help physicians prescribe narcotics appropriately without fear of being arrested for prescribing the drugs beyond the scope of their medical practice. DEA is trying to work with physicians to ensure that those who need to drugs receive them but to ensure opioids are not abused.
Narcotics may be ineffective against some forms of chronic pain, especially since changes in the spinal cord may alter the usual pain signaling pathways. In such situations, pain can be managed with the help of with antidepressants and anticonvulsants, which are also only available with a doctor's prescription.
Although antidepressant drugs were developed to treat depression, it has been discovered that they are also effective in combating some chronic headaches, cancer pain, and pain associated with nerve damage. Antidepressants that have been shown to have analgesic (pain reducing) properties include amitriptyline (Elavil), trazodone (Desyrel), and imipramine (Tofranil). Anticonvulsant drugs share a similar background with antidepressants. Developed to treat epilepsy, certain anticonvulsants were found to relieve pain as well. Drugs such as phenytoin (Dilantin) and carbamazepine (Tegretol) are prescribed to treat the pain associated with nerve damage.
Other prescription drugs are used to treat specific types of pain or specific pain syndromes. For example, corticosteroids are effective against pain caused by inflammation and swelling, and sumatriptan (Imitrex) was developed to treat migraine headaches.
Drug administration depends on the drug type and the required dose. Some drugs are not absorbed very well from the stomach and must be injected or administered intravenously. Injections and intravenous administration may also be used when high doses are needed or if an individual is nauseous. Following surgery and other medical procedures, patients may have the option of controlling the pain medication themselves. By pressing a button, they can release a set dose of medication into an intravenous solution. This procedure has also been employed in other situations requiring pain management. Another mode of administration involves implanted catheters that deliver pain medication directly to the spinal cord. Delivering drugs in this way can reduce side effects and increase the effectiveness of the drug.
NONPHARMACOLOGICAL OPTIONS. Pain treatment options that do not use drugs are often used as adjuncts to, rather than replacements for, drug therapy. One of the benefits of non-drug therapies is that an individual can take a more active stance against pain. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga and meditation, are used to decrease muscle tension and reduce stress. Tension and stress can also be reduced through biofeedback, in which an individual consciously attempts to modify skin temperature, muscle tension, blood pressure, and heart rate.
Participating in normal activities and exercising can also help control pain levels. Through physical therapy, an individual learns beneficial exercises for reducing stress, strengthening muscles, and staying fit. Regular exercise has been linked to production of endorphins, the body's natural pain killers.
Acupuncture involves the insertion of small needles into the skin at key points. Acupressure uses these same key points, but involves applying pressure rather than inserting needles. Both of these methods may work by prompting the body to release endorphins. Applying heat or being massaged are very relaxing and help reduce stress. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) applies a small electric current to certain parts of nerves, potentially interrupting pain signals and inducing release of endorphins. To be effective, use of TENS should be medically supervised.
INVASIVE PROCEDURES. There are three types of invasive procedures that may be used to manage or treat pain: anatomic, augmentative, and ablative. These procedures involve surgery, and certain guidelines should be followed before carrying out a procedure with permanent effects. First, the cause of the pain must be clearly identified. Next, surgery should be done only if noninvasive procedures are ineffective. Third, any psychological issues should be addressed. Finally, there should be a reasonable expectation of success.
Anatomic procedures involve correcting the injury or removing the cause of pain. Relatively common anatomic procedures are decompression surgeries, such as repairing a herniated disk in the lower back or relieving the nerve compression related to carpal tunnel syndrome. Another anatomic procedure is neurolysis, also called a nerve block, which involves destroying a portion of a peripheral nerve.
Augmentative procedures include electrical stimulation or direct application of drugs to the nerves that are transmitting the pain signals. Electrical stimulation works on the same principle as TENS. In this procedure, instead of applying the current across the skin, electrodes are implanted to stimulate peripheral nerves or nerves in the spinal cord. Augmentative procedures also include implanted drug-delivery systems. In these systems, catheters are implanted in the spine to allow direct delivery of drugs to the CNS.
Ablative procedures are characterized by severing a nerve and disconnecting it from the CNS. However, this method may not address potential alterations within the spinal cord. These changes perpetuate pain messages and do not cease even when the connection between the sensory nerve and the CNS is severed. With growing understanding of neuropathic pain and development of less invasive procedures, ablative procedures are used less frequently. However, they do have applications in select cases of peripheral neuropathy, cancer pain, and other disorders.
Prior to beginning management, pain is thoroughly evaluated. Pain scales or questionnaires are used to attach an objective measure to a subjective experience. Objective measurements allow health care workers a better understanding of the pain being experienced by the patient. Evaluation also includes physical examinations and diagnostic tests to determine underlying causes. Some evaluations require assessments from several viewpoints, including neurology, psychiatry and psychology, and physical therapy. If pain is due to a medical procedure, management consists of anticipating the type and intensity of associated pain and managing it preemptively.
Owing to toxicity over the long term, some drugs can only be used for acute pain or as adjuncts in chronic pain management. NSAIDs have the well-known side effect of causing gastrointestinal bleeding, and long-term use of acetaminophen has been linked to kidney and liver damage. Other drugs, especially narcotics, have serious side effects, such as constipation, drowsiness, and nausea. Serious side effects can also accompany pharmacological therapies; mood swings, confusion, bone thinning, cataract formation, increased blood pressure, and other problems may discourage or prevent use of some analgesics.
Key terms
Acute — Referring to pain in response to injury or other stimulus that resolves when the injury heals or the stimulus is removed.
Chronic — Referring to pain that endures beyond the term of an injury or painful stimulus. Can also refer to cancer pain, pain from a chronic or degenerative disease, and pain from an unidentified cause.
CNS or central nervous system — The part of the nervous system that includes the brain and the spinal cord.
Iatrogenic — Resulting from the activity of the physician.
Neuropathy — Nerve damage.
Neurotransmitter — Chemicals within the nervous system that transmit information from or between nerve cells.
Nociceptor — A nerve cell that is capable of sensing pain and transmitting a pain signal.
Nonpharmacological — Referring to therapy that does not involve drugs.
Pharmacological — Referring to therapy that relies on drugs.
PNS or peripheral nervous system — Nerves that are outside of the brain and spinal cord.
Stimulus — A factor capable of eliciting a response in a nerve.
Nonpharmacological therapies carry little or no risk. However, it is advised that individuals recovering from serious illness or injury consult with their health care providers or physical therapists before making use of adjunct therapies. Invasive procedures carry risks similar to other surgical procedures, such as infection, reaction to anesthesia, iatrogenic (injury as a result of treatment) injury, and failure.
A traditional concern about narcotics use has been the risk of promoting addiction. As narcotic use continues over time, the body becomes accustomed to the drug and adjusts normal functions to accommodate to its presence. Therefore, to elicit the same level of action, it is necessary to increase dosage over time. As dosage increases, an individual may become physically dependent on narcotic drugs.
However, physical dependence is different from psychological addiction. Physical dependence is characterized by discomfort if drug administration suddenly stops, while psychological addiction is characterized by an overpowering craving for the drug for reasons other than pain relief. Psychological addiction is a very real and necessary concern in some instances, but it should not interfere with a genuine need for narcotic pain relief. However, caution must be taken with people with a history of addictive behavior.
Normal results
Effective application of pain management techniques reduces or eliminates acute or chronic pain. This treatment can improve an individual's quality of life and aid in recovery from injury and disease.