What Is a Pain Management Specialist? Should I See One?
Last updated: July 2023
About 50 million people in the United States live with chronic pain, meaning their pain is long-term. Chronic pain can come and go or be constant. It can interfere with daily activities like sleeping and walking. This can make you feel frustrated.1
The good news is that there are treatment options available. One of these options is working with a pain management specialist.
What is a pain specialist?
A pain specialist is a doctor who diagnoses and treats pain. They received special training for at least 1 year after their residency. Every pain specialist is different.2
For example, they may have a background in another specialty, such as anesthesia or neurology. They also may have more experience with a specific type of pain. Last, they may have a unique approach to managing pain.2
A pain specialist's goal is to help you lower the level of pain you feel. This can help improve your quality of life.2
When should you see a pain specialist?
Some general signs that you may need a pain specialist include:3,4
- The pain is long-term
- You feel pain when moving certain body parts
- You feel sad, frustrated, anxious because of your pain
- The pain interferes with your sleep or other activities
- The pain disrupts your ability to work and earn an income
- You have become dependent on over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen
- You are not getting pain relief despite seeing a doctor
You do not have to manage your chronic pain alone. Speak with your primary care doctor or specialist. They can refer you to a pain management specialist who can help.2
Possible reasons for chronic pain
Chronic pain is usually caused by an injury, such as a back sprain. But there are also several health conditions that can cause chronic pain. These include:5
- Arthritis like psoriatic arthritis (PsA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Diabetic neuropathy
- Neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder
In some cases, there is not a clear cause for someone's chronic pain. This can make it even more complex to treat.4
What to expect in a first visit
At your first visit, the pain specialist will ask you questions about your pain. These questions may include:2,5
- What does the pain feel like?
- What number, from 0 (no pain) to 10 (the worst pain), would you rate the pain?
- Where do you feel your pain?
- How severe does the pain get and when?
- How has the pain impacted your life?
- What makes the pain feel better?
- How has the pain impacted your life?
- Are you having other symptoms besides pain?
The pain specialist will also review your medical records. These records may include tests, X-rays, medical history, and doctors' notes. They may also order further testing to help find the source of your pain.2,5
Once your pain has been diagnosed, the pain specialist can create a treatment plan.
Types of treatment for chronic pain
There are several treatments that can help with chronic pain, including:4,6
- Lifestyle changes
- Relaxation and mental health techniques
A pain specialist may prescribe a drug to help relieve a certain type of pain. Examples of these drugs include:4,6
- Standard pain relievers like non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetamenophine (Tylenol)
- Muscle relaxers
- Anti-seizure drugs
- Opioids (also called narcotics), such as codeine or hydrocodone
Opioids are usually prescribed as a last resort due to their increased risk of dependency.4
Depending on how severe your pain is, a pain specialist may recommend a procedure, such as:4,6
- Injections with a drug, like a steroid
- Nerve blocks
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve block stimulation (TENS)
- Insertion of a pain pump
Non-drug pain management
There are many non-drug approaches to reducing chronic pain. For example, your pain specialist may prescribe:4,6
- Physical therapy to decrease pain severity and restore mobility
- Occupational therapy to help avoid future injury with everyday tasks
- Counseling to reduce the stress that often comes with chronic pain
- Acupuncture, which places small needles on the back to relieve pain
- Biofeedback to help you regulate your body’s response to pain
- Changes to your diet or other aspects of your lifestyle
Typically, how much time passes between attacks for you?