If your pain isn’t coming from an obvious source—a sore neck from a car accident, say, or broken leg from a skiing snafu—try pinpoint the trouble by keeping a pain journal, recommends Jeremy Allen, MD, medical director for American Family Care, Birmingham, Alabama, region. Record what you were doing and what was happening around the onset of pain. “Even things as simple as a shift in your diet, a reduction in the amount or quality of sleep you get, or amount of stress you’re under can impact your level of pain,” says Dr. Allen. Don’t wait to call a doc if you experience these pain symptoms.
All you know is that you’re in pain and want relief. Gus Crothers, MD, medical director of clinical personnel for Grand Rounds, says hang on: Pain is a symptom, not a diagnosis. “It is important to know that your doctor has a good understanding of the underlying cause of your pain,” says Dr. Crothers. “Without a correct diagnosis, it is difficult to prescribe the best treatment.” (It’s a slippery slope when you try to diagnose yourself.) If you don’t have a clear diagnosis, you may want to get a second opinion before starting any pain meds.
Acute pain came on suddenly and hopefully will begin easing once you start the healing process. (Don’t miss the 24 secrets pain doctors won’t tell you.) Chronic pain means you’ve been living with it for awhile. It’s critical to understand the expected time frame of the pain and treatment. “Acute pain and chronic pain are managed very differently and there are certain strategies that might work for one but won’t work for the other,” says Dr. Crothers.
Some medicine combos just don’t play nice in the body and can create more trouble. A bad cocktail of medication can damage your kidney or liver. Some drugs will be stronger or weaker in the presence of other pharmaceuticals, causing the prescribed doses to be too high or too low. “Opioid pain medications in particular can cause trouble if they are mixed with another medication that is processed by the same part of the liver,” warns Dr. Allen. “The two substances will end up receiving uneven amounts of critical enzymes that the body uses to process them, which could lead to inconsistent performance of both drugs, or a buildup of those substances in the body.”
Back pain from a sprain or strain is a very common complaint, according to Quan Nguyen, MD, a Kaiser Permanente pain specialist in California, but pain stemming from the back or any other part of the body doesn’t necessarily need an opioid prescription. Acute and chronic pain can resolve with conservative efforts such as physical therapy, analgesic balms and over the counter anti-inflammatories. “Other options include anti-inflammatories that are prescription strength or oral steroids such as prednisone if severe and without contraindications,” says Dr. Nguyen. Try these home remedies for an achy back.
Serious pharmaceuticals shouldn’t always be the first course of action taken to manage pain. “What many people don’t realize is that often, pain can be very poorly treated with prescription medications, but responds well to over-the-counter medications,” says Dr. Allen. Before taking the prescription opioid route, there may be lifestyle changes you can try to reduce your pain, such as yoga, meditation, lose weight, exercise more, massage therapy, physical therapy and acupuncture.