Pain Clinics: Alternatives at work

The last time I attended a ‘pain class’ I came away believing I was sent there to experience pain. The proctor operating the class was a middle aged woman. She was about five-eight in height and was carry the extra weight common to the area. She was dressed in brown heavy flare slacks, a bright yellow blouse, and had a leopard patterned scarf around her neck Boy Scout style. He brown hair was thick and bouffant, looking like a rippled helmet more than a hair do. Her eyes were an unremarkable hazel, confused as to their allegiance to green or brown. She spoke in nasal tones, replete with sibilant S sounds. But she had the energy of a hummingbird and flitted from person to person, asking them “let’s introduce ourselves” question no one wanted to answer.

All of us were there because we hurt. We live not day to day but second to second with pain. Slightly more inured than at the outset, the pain we felt would have left us fetal and sobbing, incapable of even clear thought. But the magic of the body, along with medications to dull the symptoms, we all could tolerate the sensations better –although the level of pain was unchanged. It had become a consistent component of our lives. Most of us believed the pain class a waste of time. A few neophytes had the expectant expressions of those expecting a medical miracle; they actually believed that they could learn not to feel pain. Suckers.

Our proctor droned on for bit, he ample rear end perched on the edge of her desk at the head of the room. She looked out over us, reminiscent of a third grade teacher appraising her lot. After a brief respite, she began to speak. “Pain is a thing. Pain is very real and it’s a thing. We all  know that anything that’s real can be manipulated. Even our hardest substance, diamond, can be worked by man, ground into shapes that make them incredibly valuable.”  A hand shot up and she turned her attention to it.  ”yes?” she said, pointing.

“Diamonds are valuable by virtue of scarcity and flawlessness. The end cut, while more presentable, has little to do with the over all value. It’s more like paying extra for a fancy paint job on a Ferrari. It looks better for it, but it’s presence or absence doesn’t change the value of a Ferrari.”

“Thank you so much for that wonderful bit of information. But I’d like us to try and remain on task –and our subject is pain, not cars.” The questioner pursed his lips and I watched his eyes glaze over and thought to myself “I have just seen the first mistake and the first person I believe will drop out.”  Truth is, I wasn’t impressed by the exchange myself, thinking that postulating that if something was real it could be twisted to better serve mankind was a ridiculous assumption. Lead is very real, but we can’t change it to gold, even though there is but a single electron difference between the two elements. I realized that I had arrived with a dismissive attitude and decided to try harder to get something from the pain class. However, as she droned on in her introduction, I wasn’t paying much attention.

She spent the better part of an hour trying to coach us into learning to deflect our attention from the pain we experienced. “Try thinking of perhaps someplace tropical, maybe, she winked,  think of naked people cavorting on the beach. Or think about music you love and play it for yourself in your head.”

A Vietnam vet, obvious by his patch covered dungaree vest, made a growling noise and shifted his considerable weight in his chair. “Something?” asked the proctor, looking at him fiercely.

“Lady, I can’t fuckin’ think of my name, no less a pleasant place to visit. And the last tropical place I was left me like this!” He held up the stumps of a missing left arm and leg, Each had been amputated at the primary joint: elbow and knee.

“Well, then think of a carnival. Think about sex. The idea is to get your mind to not focus on the discomfort.” said the proctor. The petulance in her voice was yet another turn off for me. I seriously wondered if this class ever helped anyone, or if it was created to give someone rather inept at interpersonal interactions a job. The class wandered on and the subject of hypnotism came up. With a flourish, she pulled open a door to the classroom and in stepped a rumpled and comfortable looking old gentleman. He was wearing a banker’s pinstripe suit, a three piece, with a black tie rowed with tiny skulls. He was, in turned out, a hypnotist.

There were introductions and explanations, and then the hypnotist chose a person at random to put under. He happened to choose the gravelly Vietnam vet. There was no swinging watch or spiral wheels involved. The hypnotist merely spoke to the man in quiet tones; the rest of us couldn’t hear the detail of his comments. Quite suddenly, he barked the word “SLEEP!” It startled us all, and the vet reacted with a startled swing that clipped the chin of the hypnotist. There was some discussion, and a different subject was chosen. She was kind of mousy looking and quiet. A bit over five-five with brown hair cut page boy style, she tried to relax and pay attention to the hypnotist. After about ten minutes, the hypnotist admitted that she just wasn’t going under, and commented on how some groups of people were more susceptible to hypnosis than others.

At that point we broke off for lunch. I noticed that about an hour later I recognized a number of people from the class heading across the parking lot to their cars. Like me, they were ditching the class. While the intention might have been good, the implementation appeared to be more off-putting than witnessing a hog butchery. The words Snake Oil were gently bandied as we congregated to congratulate one another on escape.

The only time I had previously witnessed something like a pain class, it was on visiting a short lived set of specialists who’d created a business out of helping people with their pain. Their approach was not medical, at least, not in the conventional setting. The company was built on a foundation of chiropractic, yet drew from a well of people qualified in various other areas of holistic medicine. They had an acupuncturist, experts in light and scent therapies, and of course, massage therapies.

I’d been referred to them after a parachute accident left me pretty sore. While I wasn’t comfortable with some of their methodologies, I actually thrived on the chiropractic and massage aspects. I did very well with their help, in spite of my choice not to try the various herbal supplements and the light and odor therapies. I simply didn’t believe in them. I was saddened to hear that the business wasn’t profitable enough to continue, it folded a few months after my time as their client.

I have been recalling this story for a while now, as I have dealt with my many pain issues as a result of Multiple Myeloma –and some over-exuberant sporting activities in life. As I wrestled with peripheral neuropathy (and still do), thoughts about the little pain clinic tickle my memory.  It occurs to me that I would like to see a clinic like this attached to the various oncology centers operated by the VA.

I am a long time opponent of ‘supplements.’ That’s not to say I find no value in them, that’s not true. But currently, most supplements are recommended by strangers to strangers, a situation I find dangerous, and especially so because often the oncology teams are uninformed of the alternative medicine  activities of their patients. If they are aware, it’s through patchy comments made at appointments. However, in a situation where qualified people, expert in their particular field, worked in concert and blending the arts and sciences of practical and alternative medicine can only produce a benefit to those who suffer the ravages of cancer and other chronic pain producing conditions. While we focus so closely on the new, genetic manipulated medicines, we should recall that the majority of our medicaments were produced from the flora of our planet. As they say, the destruction of the Amazon is a blow stricken against medicine with every tree felled.

The world offers us a smorgasbord of medicines and ways to manipulate the body for improvement. But at this particular time, only a scant few organizations employ this gift properly. Again, I point to the way that people in forums zealously encourage the consumption or use of compounds which on one hand are good, and the other hand beyond bad. The discovery that Vitamin C can reduce the efficacy of some chemotherapy and that a number of typical supplements can produce severe damage to the body when combined with the medicines of traditional doctoring. My way of expression says ‘we already have a tremendous number of alien substances whirling through our bloodstream, adding more while blindfolded is foolish indeed.’ This is a reason for close cooperation between oncologist and clinic.

Yet the high value of both traditional and alternative medicines calls out to be combined into a product more powerful than the sum of its parts. While I applaud the research going on as I write this, I have equal applause waiting to see the realms of these two joined. Let’s create the databases that demonstrate what body conditions are best served by which approach in alternative medicines, just as we do in regular medicine. At least in the areas of pain; if not beyond. Pain relief is one of the most important aspects of healing, never mind the gargantuan impact it has on quality of life.  We should be spending research time and dollars on the medical gifts that nature already offers through natural plant evolution and mineral development as much as we do the invented, disclaimer-laden medical inventions from genome studies.

While some pain clinics are, as the sad one I was assigned to by my primary physician did, suck. I imagine some intellectual Illuminati was certain that the idea of ignoring pain might defeat it. But there’s a very high likelihood that the promoters of such exercises have never experienced the unrelenting and intrusive pain so familiar to so many victims. Better to generate the level playing field of a combination of methodologies from the various corners that encompasses all we know about pain as a people, rather than the partially eclipsed perspective of practitioners loyal only to their particular interest.

There are two different schools of pain clinic: those that try proffer relaxation training, hypnosis and other quasi-mainstream methods. Then there are the new sort: organizations with specialists in not just their field, but in the diseases whose pain they target. A masseuse or chiropractor unfamiliar with, say, Multiple Myeloma could easily worsen the situation. Of course, that’s true across the board, as the clinic needs to address the interplay of any provided treatment and the patient and their treatment. One size definitely does not fit all.  A good pain clinic can be a Godsend. Lord knows no one likes pain, and the more that can be done to reduce or eliminate it, the better.