Donald feels like a new man. After years of enduring debilitating back pain,
he's finally feeling well enough to coach his daughter's soccer team, to take
his kids fishing and camping, and to go on a cruise with his wife. He said
goodbye to sickness, short tempers, the heating pad, couch, sedating
medication, and seemingly ineffective surgeries after he sought the services of
a pain specialist.
"It's changed my whole life," says Donald, who now wears a
prescribed patch on his upper arm, which steadily administers a pain-killing
As with other subjective experiences, such as love, fear, or anger, there's no way to objectively measure pain. We asked Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the Pain Management Division and associate professor of anesthesia at Stanford University School of Medicine, to explain the unpleasant sensation we all feel in different ways.
The 40-year-old registered nurse is resigned to the idea that he will
probably be on drugs for the rest of his life because of permanent nerve
damage. All the same, he's marveling at his renewed strength and capacity to
think of something else besides pain.
Donald is one of many who have turned to pain management experts for help
with never-ending hurts. The specialty is relatively new and still suffers from
misconceptions, but it is gradually earning the acceptance and respect of both
health professionals and the general public.
With acknowledgement have come the pressing questions: What causes chronic
pain? How is it diagnosed? How is it treated?
Unfortunately, the answers don't come so readily, for there could be several
reasons for the same affliction; there is no one way to identify and measure
the physical distress; and there is no magic bullet for treatment.
The good news is that doctors are now paying more attention to the issue of
pain and, as a result, there are more ways than ever to tackle the problem.
Yet in the near future looms a darker picture: aging baby boomers are
expected to ache for quick fixes, faster than the medical establishment can
Nevertheless, the optimistic search for reasons and relief continues.