If you're one of the 100 million Americans in chronic pain, living a full and active life may seem out of your reach. But with the right treatment and support, it is possible. You've probably already visited your regular doctor, but there are also experts who specialize in treating pain who can work with your doctor and you to help you find relief.
Pain Medicine Specialists
What do they treat? Many different types of pain, including pain that’s caused by surgery, injury, nerve damage, and conditions like diabetes. They also treat pain that doesn’t have a clear cause. They use medications given by mouth or targeted injections.
How do I find one? Go to the websites of the American Academy of Pain Medicine (www.painmed.org) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (www.abpm.org) for directories of specialists.
Orthopedic Specialists and Surgeons
What do they treat? Injuries and diseases that affect your musculoskeletal system, which includes your bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Many specialize in certain parts of the body like the hips, knees, and shoulders. Once they diagnose your injury or disorder, they'll create a treatment plan that could include medicine. They might also recommend exercises (or refer you to a physical therapist) to help restore movement, strength, and function to your body and teach you how to prevent further issues. They are trained as surgeons, so if surgery is necessary, they can do it.
What do they treat? Although they’re similar to medical doctors (they have also gone to medical school, but have DO after their names instead of MD), osteopathic doctors get extra training in the musculoskeletal system, which includes nerves, muscles, and bones.
How do I find one? Go to the website of the American Osteopathic Association (www.osteopathic.org).
What do they treat? Rheumatic diseases, including arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and tendinitis, which can cause pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints, muscles, and bones. Treatments may include medicines or anti-inflammatory or pain-blocking injections in your tendons or joints.
How do I find one? Go to the American College of Rheumatology's website (www.rheumatology.org).
Physiatrists or Rehabilitation Physicians
What do they treat? Injuries and conditions that affect how you move. They diagnose and treat pain related to nerves, muscles, and bones including carpal tunnel, neck and back pain, sports and work injuries, herniated discs, arthritis, pinched nerves, and concussions without the use of surgery. These doctors also treat post-surgery pain.
How do I find one? Go to the website of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (www.aapmr.org).
Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists
What do they treat? These professionals work with people recovering from injury or surgery. Physical therapists may use massage, stretching, heat, ice, and exercise to help ease your pain and increase your mobility. They often carry out the orders written by physiatrists.
What do they treat? Acupuncturists are trained to work with a wide range of conditions causing pain, including headaches, knee pain, low back pain, neck pain, sciatica, sprains, and osteoarthritis. They insert very thin needles into specific points on your body, which are said to promote healing. Although needles might sound scary, most people feel little or no discomfort.
How do I find one? Go to the websites of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (aaaomonline.org), the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (www.nccaom.org), or the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (www.medicalacupuncture.org).
What do they treat? Back pain is a common reason people seek out chiropractors, but these specialists treat pain from all kinds of conditions, injuries, and accidents -- even chronic headaches. They don't prescribe medicine, but they use hands-on techniques to offer relief.
How do I find one? Go to the American Chiropractic Association's website (www.acatoday.org) and search on their "Find a Doctor" page.
How to Choose a Pain Specialist
Your doctor can tell you which kind of specialist you need and possibly give you a referral. In choosing a provider, you’ll want to find out their general approach to managing pain and how they would treat you specifically. Pick a doctor who:
- Has the training and experience in treating your specific type of pain. Most will have done a pain medicine fellowship, which is training above and beyond a doctor’s training in a specialty.
- Is “board-certified,” which means they have passed in-depth tests in fields such as anesthesiology, neurology, or physical medicine and rehab
- Listens well
- Seems trustworthy
- Has a good reputation in the medical community
- Encourages you to ask questions
- Allows you to disagree
Working With a Pain Specialist
Bring a copy of all your medical records, including any X-rays, to your first appointment. Also have a list of all the medicines you take, including any herbs and supplements. It can help to keep a pain diary, where you write down how you feel each day.
The doctor will examine you and talk to you about your pain. They'll want to know:
- Where it hurts
- How it feels (For instance: Does it burn, ache, feel like pins and needles, pound, feel tight or tender?)
- When your pain first started
- How bad it is (such as on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst possible)
- What you think may have caused it
- Any medicines you take for it or other treatments you’ve tried
- What makes it worse or better
Pain Management Resources
In addition to the organizations listed above, there are many resources available to help you meet the challenges of chronic pain. This list is by no means a complete one; it is designed as a starting point to help you identify sources of help.
American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA)
American Pain Society (APS)
National Fibromyalgia Association
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association
National Pain Foundation
National Headache Foundation
National Multiple Sclerosis Society
National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD)
Trigeminal Neuralgia Association
United Cerebral Palsy (UCP)