Pain Management

Opioid crisis: The difference between sympathy and empathy

Monique Tello, MD, MPH
Monique Tello, MD, MPH, Contributor

When a patient calls a new doctor begging for a refill on their pain medication, what should the doctor do? Denying medication to someone in significant pain seems unethical — but denying it to someone who’s suspected to be reselling it is a whole different story. Doctors now have systems in place to help them make the right call. But even these systems can’t replace the most critical piece of the puzzle — empathy.

The psychology of low back pain

Srini Pillay, MD
Srini Pillay, MD, Contributor

Some aspects of chronic back pain really are “in your head” — but that doesn’t mean you’re making it up. Rather, research has shown that when pain is chronic, the brain processes it not via the usual “pain” circuits, but via the “emotion” circuits. This means that you can actually reduce chronic pain by changing your psychological and emotional response to it. We’ve listed several techniques that have been proven to reduce chronic back pain.

Is there a “best” pain reliever for osteoarthritis?

Robert R. Edwards, Ph.D.
Robert R. Edwards, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

Osteoarthritis can contribute significantly to a reduced quality of life, and many arthritis sufferers have come to rely on pain medication for symptom control. A recent study compared NSAIDs against opioids for pain relief and found no significant difference between them. But as always, the right treatment choice for any individual person depends on their unique medical situation and what works best for them.

Why are doctors writing opioid prescriptions — even after an overdose?

Joji Suzuki, MD

A recent study of nearly 3,000 patients who had an overdose during long-term opioid treatment found that more than 90% of these patients continued to receive opioids — even after their overdose. Poor communication between emergency rooms and prescribing doctors is likely the culprit. What’s more, doctors receive little training in recognizing patients at high risk for overdose, or in treating addiction when they do spot it. An important strategy to address the current opioid crisis is to improve how doctors are educated about opioids.

Cold and flu warning: The dangers of too much acetaminophen

Susan Farrell, MD
Susan Farrell, MD, Contributing Editor

Many common cold and flu medications and prescription-strength pain relievers contain acetaminophen (Tylenol) as one of their active ingredients. If you take several of these drugs at once during a bout of cold or flu, you might accidentally take more than the safe dose of acetaminophen, potentially causing liver damage. It’s always best to read the labels — and to keep in mind that most winter viruses get better on their own with rest, fluids, and time.

The “right” goal when managing pain

Robert R. Edwards, Ph.D.
Robert R. Edwards, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

When it comes to pain management, focusing only on reducing the intensity of pain may lead to treatments that do as much harm as good. Ideally, pain-management plans should be tailored to each patient and include a range of therapies that not only reduce pain but also help improve pain-related quality-of-life problems.

The gender gap in sports injuries

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

For a variety of reasons, women are more prone to suffer many of the most common sports-related injuries than men are. This has led to some innovative approaches to prevent injuries among women in sports. Certain strategies, such as muscle conditioning, can help reduce the risk of some injuries. However, more research is needed to help close this particular gender gap.

The Alexander Technique can help you (literally) unwind

Eva Selhub MD
Eva Selhub MD, Contributing Editor

The Alexander Technique (AT) was developed by a Shakespearean actor who discovered that muscle tension and poor posture caused him to lose his voice when he performed. His methods are still used today to help people unlearn negative habits and patterns of movement and learn how to return the body to a relaxed state. Although AT still enjoys a lot of popularity among artists and performers, it can help anyone move through life with more ease and less pain.

Can the weather really worsen arthritis pain?

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Many arthritis sufferers notice a link between the weather and their symptoms. Research supports a connection, though the precise causes and effects aren’t clear. While there is little one can do to control the weather, there is a lot that can be done to relieve the pain and stiffness of arthritis. Don’t put up with arthritis symptoms in any weather — see your doctor to discuss treatment options.

Healing through music

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Music therapists are trained and certified to help patients in many ways. Research suggests that music therapy is more than just a nice perk. It can offer real benefits in reducing pain, anxiety, and improving quality of life for people with dementia.