Not every pain needs a pill

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How we wish there were better ways to treat pain. But scientists are struggling to find them. The very nature of pain remains elusive too. Determining if pain is mild, moderate, or severe is a personal perception. Doctors and nurses ask patients to rate their pain from zero to ten. Whether the patient says 2 or 15, there’s more judgement than science in decisions about pain management. But one thing is certain, people managing pain at home are taking too many pills.

Pain, at best, is an annoyance. At worst, it is all consuming. It’s been said that pain can collapse the universe and concentrate the soul until only the hurt is left. Elaine Scarry, a Harvard professor and author of “The Body in Pain”, wrote that pain and “injuring” are even tools of war.

In clinical settings, even when managed well, there are negative side effects with pain treatment. Acute pain can be reduced, for example, by opioids. But medical professionals need to be cautious with these drugs, because in addition to killing the pain, side effects can include euphoria and hallucinations, plus they are highly addictive.

Some researchers have been trying to develop drugs that ease pain without these side effects by attempting to turn on and turn off cellular and molecular receptors.  There is promise, but as yet no success.

Other problematic ways to beat pain include alcohol misuse, smoking, nutritionally devoid comfort foods, and default to a sedentary lifestyle. These are not good strategies. For people suffering from chronic pain, the key is to get professional help. A good doctor or pain management specialist will treat the pain and offer a plan to get off any drugs used in treatment. Run for help elsewhere if there is no such plan.

Numbing minor aches and pain with over-the counter pain medications has become a national pastime.

It’s foolish to hope that people will change their ways. Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But we can only repeat the message that too many painkillers are worse than suffering a little pain. Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian novelist, said, “People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.”

Sadly, some people find out the hard way, by paying the ultimate price. A report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reports that a billion doses of acetaminophen are taken safely each year, but ten thousand people in Canada overdose on this over-the-counter medication annually. Of these, about 4,500 people are hospitalized and estimates suggest about one hundred people die.

How and why is this happening? Acetaminophen does not mix well with alcohol, yet people don’t read the warnings. In fact, the main cause of liver failure is an overdose of acetaminophen mixed with alcohol.

Tylenol is not the only pain reliever containing acetaminophen. People may consume more of the drug than they realize when they take multiple medications. Always read labels to make sure you’re not doubling or tripling the dose. When in doubt, talk with a doctor or pharmacist.

It’s not popular advice, but suffering a little bit is the right prescription for millions of people. Save the money spent on pain relievers and go home to get some rest instead. This goes for children too. It’s heart-wrenching to have a child experiencing even a little bit of pain. But in return for the hesitation to rush to medication, that child will gain a lifetime of fortitude and common sense to turn away from drugs when other options will ease the pain.

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