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On Managing Pain

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 07, 2019

About two weeks ago, I had my right shoulder replaced. This was the second time I’ve had surgery on that shoulder, after multiple knee surgeries and arm surgeries, and abscesses and god knows what else. This surgery took place in the middle of what’s now, to me, a very familiar, and very tedious dance with my doctors around pain, pain management, and painkillers.

The way it works is this. Everyone knows that surgery, and the injuries that lead to surgery, are painful. Everyone also knows that the best way to treat pain of this kind is through the regular administration of opiates. However, because these drugs are addictive, everyone has to act as if they don’t know anything of the kind.

So instead of just prescribing the drugs, and preventing the pain, the doctors and nurses will wait until the patient asks for the pain medication. Or they’ll prescribe pain pills, but not enough to get the patient through to the next meeting with the doctor. They put the onus on the patient to beg for relief of his/her pain. Ideally with a buffer in between, like a nurse or a pain management specialist, so that the decision never comes directly from the person you’re interacting with, but an intercessor. This is why some patients end up medicated up to the gills, and others are left to grind their teeth and just get through it.

It’s really stupid. I suspect it heightens rather than lessening patients’ feelings of dependence on these drugs, which can do so much to reduce their acute pain and chronic discomfort. Instead, they’re doled out in a semi-arbitrary fashion, generally carefully rationed but sometimes overprescribed, based on your willingness to perform pain for someone else and that person’s level of compassion or complicity with your suffering.

This is all to say: no, I’m not on pain medication. Yes, I’m terribly uncomfortable. No, I’m not uncomfortable enough to jump through hoops and beg for more drugs. (Maybe if I were, things would be different.) And at the times I was most uncomfortable, those were the times when medicine was the least available to me, by design.

We’ve got to get over our weird Puritanical crap about pain and pain medication, and accept the fact that in certain contexts, we need the drugs. And by “we,” I mean myself, the medical system; everybody. We can’t be responsible for the entire opioid epidemic every second of every day. Sometimes we just need to be able to go to sleep.