Pain management workshop explores, advocates for alternatives to opioids

As opioid addiction and overdose claims thousands of lives around the country, people are seeking out alternative ways to manage their pain.

A free workshop on chronic pain management at Beaumont Hospital – Dearborn drew nearly 100 people who wanted to learn to handle various ailments and the latest in “pain science.”

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Dr. Bruce Hillenberg, a pain psychologist, sees patients daily like the ones who gathered into the auditorium for the Jan. 30 event. He’s been working as a pain psychologist for more than three decades and his work was inspired by his own difficulties, beginning with his first lumbar spine fusion at age 22.

“Living with persistent pain has been a part of my everyday life,” he said. “Chronic pain is the most pervasive health problem there is.”

Statistics show that 60 percent of people 65 and older deal with chronic pain, 35 percent of adults and 25 percent of adolescents and children.

One of the most difficult problems is pinpointing where the pain is coming from and why, Hillenberg explained.

“When we feel pain, something has triggered our body’s alarm system,” he said. “What’s interesting is that pain can be triggered by injuries to the body, but pain fibers can also have structural or functional problems that cause pain on their own.”

Many things amplify this pain, he added, including emotions, stress, lack of movement, loneliness, anxiety or depression.

“All pain is real,” he said. “It can just have a variety of reasons for it.”

The event gave attendees alternatives to medication when it comes to managing pain, including anything that activates relaxation in the body, such as meditation and prayer, massages, yoga and water exercises.

Good sleep behaviors, expressing your feelings and engaging in meaningful activities are also things Hillenberg and other experts recommend.

“Meaning and purpose are good medicines,” Hillenberg said.

Physical therapist Joan Sacksteder spoke of the importance of pain science and understanding the education behind pain itself.

“A therapist who will work with you to a tolerable amount of pain is an experienced therapist,” she told the crowd. “All pain is real and if a physical therapist doesn’t validate your experience, then they probably aren’t educated in pain science.”

Kathleen Morrison, also a local physical therapist, recommended doing research before choosing a medical professional, to find the one whose qualifications and background meets the patient’s needs.

“In physical therapy, it’s an individual person treating you and our knowledge base is going to be a little different than the next physical therapist,” said Morrison, who specializes in treating stroke patients. “You want to make sure the person you’re seeing is matched with you.”

People in the audience asked questions to the panel members, including a Taylor woman who expressed her skepticism about doctors.

Dr. Walid Harb, a primary care physician, said the key is individualized care and finding alternatives to invasive and potentially dangerous solutions.

“We are looking for a pill or procedure to fix our pain, but chronic pain is a whole different thing,” Harb said. “There’s multiple ways to approach it. We are the coach and the one to guide you through it.”

Harb also cautioned that fixes like opioids often exasperate a problem.

“Most people with chronic pain have sleep problems, but it’s not always the pain but how we treat it,” he said. “Research has shown that opioids 50 percent of the time can affect your sleep system.”

Father of three Brian Opalinski, 34, of Taylor, was diagnosed two years ago with complex regional pain syndrome after a car accident.

Opalinski and his son, Madenn, were driving home from a family dinner in Taylor when a truck made a U-turn and spun out of control, hitting Opalinski’s car. He broke four fingers on his left hand and has experienced chronic, debilitating pain since.

“I had surgery and physical therapy, but the pain continued getting worse,” Opaliski said. Unable to type or use his hand for lengthy periods of time, he lost his job as a regional store manager for a cell phone company. Small things, Opalinski said, like doing laundry, or basic household tasks became difficult.

He was later diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, an uncommon form of chronic pain that usually affects an arm or a leg. He was referred to one of Beaumont’s four pain clinics under the leadership of Dr. Hillenberg.

He echoed what Harb said, adding that finding a good team of doctors is especially important to getting the best treatment possible.

“Doctors made me feel like my pain didn’t exist or that medication was the only answer,” he said. “A good team of support around you is a key component of your care. You’re managing your life here.”

Patient Lynn Smith said meeting people and interacting helps reduce stress and therefore the pain he deals with from having multiple procedures done.

Experts said it comes down to helping patients accept their reality of having injuries and moving forward.

“Thinking is a gift and a curse,” Hillenberg said. “We all can get stuck in worrying about how life used to be before the pain and how it will be now with the pain problem … it’s about having a willingness to experience something uncomfortable in order to do something that’s important to you.”