An estimated 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, but few realize its true impact and many doubt its legitimacy as a medical condition. Unfortunately, I do not have the luxury of ignorance. In 2003, while lifting a box at my catering company, I severed the sciatic nerve in my back. What followed was two years of major surgeries that thankfully have enabled me to continue to walk, but forced me to endure every waking hour in constant pain. Some days the pain comes in the form of lightning bolts coursing through my neck, back and leg while other days the softest touch can feel like my bones are being crushed. My life as an energetic chef and business owner changed in an instant.
Though personally tragic, my story is not a new one and certainly not the worst case. During my darkest days after my injury, I sought out others who could understand what I was going through and was shocked to learn how many Americans are impacted by pain. I also quickly learned that pain does not discriminate – people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and financial walks of life are impacted, each suffering from a unique set of symptoms.
I call my fellow sufferers “Pain Warriors.” They are those who fight for the public to better understand how chronic pain impacts our society. They fight for more investment into the research of the root causes of pain and for safer, more effective treatment options. And above all, they ask their neighbors, family and friends to listen to their concerns and frustrations and join them in the fight to eliminate chronic pain.
As September marks “Pain Awareness Month,” I am offered the opportunity to remind my fellow Americans that there are those living among you who understand your suffering. It is also a time to recognize the great progress that is being made in treating pain. In labs across America, researchers are working behind the scenes to pinpoint the specific genetic and neurological sources of pain so they can develop more personalized treatments to better prevent, manage and ultimately eliminate pain. From rehabilitative and physical therapy, to behavioral interventions and medications, physicians and nurses have a vast set of tools at their disposal to treat pain.
But more must be done. Given the number of Americans who are impacted by chronic pain, this is clearly a public health problem that requires a much broader conversation among physicians, insurers, policymakers and the patients themselves. Only through a coordinated effort can we ensure patients receive an accurate diagnosis and physicians are educated on the proper use of each treatment method available. Just as critical, we must empower patients to take control of their own health needs.
Lastly, we must turn the tide of public opinion and eliminate the bias against those patients who legitimately need and depend upon prescription pain medications to alleviate their suffering. There is no question prescription drug abuse is a serious problem in this country and we must remain committed to finding a solution. But we must not cause unnecessary burden on pain sufferers in the process. Chronic pain sufferers already face many hurdles just living their lives. The last thing an ill person needs is to jump through hoops with their insurance company, their pharmacist or with their physician to access the treatment they so desperately need. Only through a balanced approach can we ensure the appropriate treatments reach the patients who desperately need them while restricting access to those who do not.
In life, we cannot avoid temporary pain now and then, but chronic pain should not be inescapable. In honor of “Pain Awareness Month,” I implore each and every one of us to consider how chronic pain impacts those we love and support efforts to make their world better. Let’s join together as warriors against pain and fight to ensure every American has the chance to feel better.
Gileno is president and founder of the U.S. Pain Foundation. He has been a chronic pain sufferer since 2003.