Pain is a feeling that we are all familiar with – a negative sensation that serves as our body’s alarm to tell us something is wrong, and that an immediate action is needed of us to turn the alarm off.
It is common for Singaporeans to seek medical aid for their pains nowadays because of better quality of life and medical care. For instance, a 2015 report done by The Straits Times revealed that the National University Hospital (NUH) and Singapore General Hospital (SGH) saw a surge in patients looking to get treated for chronic pain, as opposed to 3 years ago. This is promising, as untreated chronic pain can cause the individual to spiral downwards, both physically and psychologically.
Chronic Pain & Depression
Few things in life can wear a person down as swiftly as chronic pain does. Chronic pain renders people less energetic and less motivated to interact and socialize. They may sleep more to compensate for the exhaustion caused by enduring the pain throughout the day. These behavioral changes should be cause for concern as they are closely linked with depression.
Chronic pain may also lead to an imbalance in brain chemistry. Symptoms characteristic of this imbalance include difficulty focusing on multiple things coupled with recurring insomnia. This depends on the individual as well—similar kinds of pain felt by different people can have varying reactions and responses.
Hard to Define & Measure
Pain is a very individual experience, so the general understanding of medical pain is a sensation that hurts, but the general consensus is that the sensation of pain hurts, and comes with discomfort, distress and even agony depending on how severe the pain is. There is also no singular objective method of measuring pain as experts of different fields have their own ways of getting a subjective pain indication.
Local Pain Trend
Despite advancements in medical science, there is no way of removing pain from our genetic make-up. 20% of all Singaporeans are afflicted with chronic pain, the large majority being the elderly who have age-related diseases such as cancer or arthritis. Up to 44% of the elderly are susceptible to musculoskeletal pain as well, mostly in the back, neck, hip and knees. A common misunderstanding is that chronic pain comes with the ageing process. While it is normal to have a headache once in a while or the occasional joint pains, pains that are experienced daily and have lasted for 6 months or more is not normal and should be checked out.
Treating Pain at its Root
The most effective and lasting way to eliminate chronic pain is done by tackling the root problem. If chronic pain is caused by cancer, anti-cancer therapy that reduces the size of the tumor, which is applying pressure on surrounding nerves and/or organs, can alleviate the pain. Pain is either decreased or removed completely depending on the efficacy of the treatment.
For the involuntary facial muscle movements, they are usually kept under control with anti-convulsant or epilepsy drugs, although it is not for everyone if they are not able to tolerate the side effects. Botox is also being put under the test to counteract the involuntary facial muscle movements, as it is able to treat specific locations without affecting the surrounding areas.
Symptom Management through Painkillers
Majority of these problems however, are usually treated by targeting the pain sensation itself through the administration of two types of painkillers: analgesics and non-opioid analgesics.
Analgesics: The strongest analgesics are opioids, used to reduce or alleviate intense pain resulting from broken bones, burns, cancer or after surgery. As our knowledge of narcotic use increased, some forms of opioid and opioid-like drugs are also used for other medical conditions that cause chronic pains.
Non-opioid analgesics: Mainly for lesser pains, they are non-addictive nor do their effects lessen over time, although certain types of chronic pain will have to incorporate the use of supplementary therapies.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), in the form of acupuncture, has also been widely used to treat chronic pains. Some have even combined acupuncture treatment with electrotherapy, running mild electrical currents through the needles to increase therapeutic effects.
Electricity in pain management has actually been studied for a long time: a 2013 study done by researchers from the University of Michigan, School of Dentistry, found that trigeminal neuralgia can be reduced by sending electricity through sensor pads on the skull. The electric waves then go to specific parts of the brain to induce the production of a natural opiate-like substance, giving relief to chronic pain.
With proper management of the chronic pain, some semblance of quality of life can be restored and it can be improved upon further with treatment. Help for various kinds of pain will become more abundant, advanced and accessible in the future, and new advancements are still possible.