...Even as the VA hospital system has come under fire for poor care, Army doctors haven't just joined up in medicine's larger war against pain—they're leading the charge.
Winning this medical war is crucial, and not just for the sake of the soldiers, who are far from the only burgeoning new group of pain sufferers. Chronic pain is one of the most pervasive and intractable medical conditions in the United States, with one in five Americans afflicted. Aging baby boomers have reported in surveys more aches and pains than any previous generation. Cancer patients have more treatments to choose from than ever, but more pain, too. Even retired NFL players—a suck-it-up group if ever there was one—have started speaking out about the wear and tear on their bodies. Civilian chronic pain already costs the country $61 billion in lost productivity and many more in medical fees. Treating the soldiers in the coming years will add at least $340 billion to the toll.
As the number of patients has grown, though, so has medicine's understanding of what pain is. Scientists once viewed it as merely a symptom of injury, an intuitive idea that resonated with laymen. "The public understanding of pain has been that it's a stubbed toe or a broken bone," says Will Rowe, executive director of the American Pain Foundation. "But that's just one aspect of it. Now there's a growing awareness that pain is a disease of its own."
This is far more than a semantic change, Rowe adds: it's "tectonic." Docs now know that the brain and spinal cord rewire themselves in response to injuries, forming "pain pathways" that can become pathologically overactive years later. They are trying to sever this maladaptive mind-body connection with a host of new drugs and approaches. Some focus on recently discovered chemical receptors in the brain and muscles. Others pack all the punch of narcotics with less of the specter of addiction.
Once I change doctors to my new area I'm going to look into a referral for a pain management program or clinic.