Education

The Truth About Pain

Most of us have experienced a sharp, fleeting pain somewhere in our body that causes us to stop whatever we’re doing and try to pinpoint the source of that pain.

More times than not, as soon as we stop, the pain goes away and we go on with our lives.

What happens, though, when that pain stays around for minutes, hours, days, weeks or months? Can you still brush it off and go about your daily routine? Should you?

The answer is a bit more complicated than you might think, according to Moises Lustgarten, M.D., medical director of pain management at Baptist Health Neuroscience Center. “People have different tolerances for pain,” he said. “So instead of saying that long-lasting, or chronic, pain should be attended to right away, we recommend looking at your quality of life as a guide.”

Dr. Lustgarten, an anesthesiologist who specializes in pain management, sees a lot of people in his practice who have suffered from neck, lower back and arthritis pain to the point that their lives were negatively affected.

“What happens, especially in elderly patients, is they begin to give up doing the things they enjoy,” Dr. Lustgarten said. “That sets up a cycle that deteriorates their health.”

People living with chronic pain stop exercising. They shy away from social settings. They may become depressed and not eat or eat too much. They may take over-the-counter pain medications, which can be dangerous in large quantities. They may turn to alcohol or abuse drugs.

Dr. Lustgarten and other experts in his field say these behaviors lead to further physical damage and mental anguish that can quickly spiral out of control.

A study cited in the May 2008 edition of Pain suggested that deterioration of health from chronic pain can begin as early as five weeks after the onset, but concluded that further studies are needed.

Dr. Lustgarten says it’s important to distinguish between ongoing persistent pain and pain that happens as the result of a life-threatening malfunction of the body, such as a stroke or heart attack, known by doctors as “acute” pain.

“If you have sudden onset of pain with weakness of limbs, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness or fever, you should seek immediate medical attention,” he said. “But, if you’ve been living with chronic pain that makes you feel helpless, you should speak to your primary physician about seeing a pain specialist.”

While pain specialists are fairly common in metropolitan and urban areas, people living in rural or remote locations may need to rely on pain management from their primary doctor or choose to live with their pain.

“Unfortunately, access to pain specialists is a real problem for some,” Dr. Lustgarten said. “For those fortunate to seek the advice of a pain specialist, though, we have treatments such as physical therapy, injections and other medications that can really make a difference.”

The key, he says, is to pay close attention to your ability to tolerate the pain and still function normally.

“When your lifestyle changes because of your pain, it’s time to seek help.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 13 hospitals, more than 23,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 100 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.