Someone you know has a drug problem — but not the kind you think. With more than 100 million Americans suffering chronic pain that prevents them from working, playing or resting, at least 8 million Americans fall asleep at night under the influence of an opioid such as Vicodin, Lortab or OxyContin. Every morning, 40 of those people don’t wake up. In 2009, more people in the U.S. died from prescription medication overdoses than from motor vehicle accidents. And those who don’t die face the risk of addiction and side effects ranging from cognitive impairment to erectile dysfunction.
Who knows — Dr. Mel Pohl could have been among those statistics. Ten years ago, he began experiencing chronic pain after simply trying to pick something up.
“I bent forward to pick up a very light computer case,” he recalls. “As I was straightening out, something snapped or caught in my back and I developed excruciating pain. I was traveling home from San Diego to Las Vegas and I thought I was going to die. On that day, my journey into chronic pain began and has continued until today.”
That journey took him through pain-management techniques both exotic and extreme. “I’ve tried all sorts of interventions including epidurals, radiofrequency ablation, prolotherapy and others.” That was until he began exploring alternatives — and launched a program to teach others how to use them. Pohl, medical director of Las Vegas Recovery Center (lasvegasrecovery.com), founded the Pain Recovery Program, which includes such techniques as meditation, distraction, yoga, Pilates, reiki, acupuncture, physical therapy — “Acupuncture, hydrotherapy, music therapy, aromatherapy, oxygen therapy, hypnotherapy, yoga, meditation, exercise, nutrition, biofeedback, chiropractic, and also cognitive behavioral therapy,” Pohl adds, running out of fingers to count on. Better yet, most of these techniques are inexpensive or free.
Perhaps the most effective tool? Attitude adjustment. “My solution is to face the emotional aspects of my pain, exercise, meditate daily and not take myself too seriously,” says Pohl. He’s since written several books on the topic, including A Day without Pain.
Dan Mager, who has a chronic pain condition and used pain medications every day for over eight years, completed the program at the center in 2006, and hasn’t taken opioids since.
“I never would have thought it possible for me to experience significantly less pain while being opioid-free. ... Through my experience at LVRC, I’ve learned to accept and live with my chronic pain with as much grace as I can mobilize.” Three hundred clients have gone through the program since it started.
Notice Mager says “accept,” not “fix.” No miracle cures promised here — pain is real. But just as real is functionality, a core value of Pohl’s program. “We must be realistic about our pain,” he says. “It may always be with us, to greater or lesser degrees. The goal of pain recovery should be to reduce and manage pain, while focusing on restoring or recovering functionality. And the emphasis should be on the word ‘functionality.’”
He adds: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering, however, is optional.”