Two decades ago, opioids became the new standard for treating chronic pain. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doctors were originally misinformed about the likelihood of patients developing an addiction to these types of pain medications. Today, practitioners more widely understand that the problems opioids create far outweigh their benefits, and a growing number of medical professionals are moving toward opioid alternatives for treating chronic pain.
As a union leader, educating your members on innovative pain management solutions — and empowering them to seek such treatment — may help prevent the overuse of opioids.
High-Tech Solutions to Pain Management
A number of innovative, nonpharmacologic options exist for treating chronic pain. These include:
- Spinal cord stimulation. Involving implanting a small device in a patient's lower back, this treatment is most useful for back pain, nerve damage in the lower body and diabetes-related pain. An electric current stimulates the nerves in the area of pain, which masks the pain signal before it can reach the brain.
- Radiofrequency ablation. This option requires a doctor to insert a needle near the pain-causing nerve and burn the nerve tissue, decreasing its ability to send pain signals to the brain. Radiofrequency ablation can provide relief for up to one year and is often used for back, neck and joint pain.
- Deep brain stimulation. In this treatment, electrodes are implanted in the brain. They create electrical impulses that block abnormal pain signals to treat a variety of chronic pain disorders.
What to Teach Members About Alternative Solutions
When discussing opioid alternatives, aim to give members a thorough education on their options.
Keep members up to date on what treatments the union's health insurance plan will cover and how much they can expect to pay out of pocket. Remind them that they can contact their insurance provider for cost estimates, coverage and local provider information.
Discuss how members' bodies may respond to alternative treatments, including that they may not see immediate results. A painkiller is a quick, easy way to seek relief with many long-term health consequences; nonpharmacologic approaches generally take longer to work and may have some side effects but are more likely to support a member's overall health and wellness.
Perhaps most important, however, is to encourage members to be realistic about their expectations. Depending on the situation, it's possible that no treatment — whether pharmaceutical or not — will completely eliminate their pain. Rather than focusing on being pain-free, members should identify incremental improvements in mobility and mood and judge progress and the effectiveness of treatment on these factors.
Empowering Members to Seek the Right Care
Union leaders should be a trusted and supportive resource for members with chronic pain. But the board should encourage members to discuss their treatment options with a doctor — and prepare them to start that conversation.
If a doctor seems hesitant to consider nonpharmacologic options, encourage members to seek a second opinion and provide guidance on how they can find other providers within the union's health insurance plan. Explain that no member should feel pressured into accepting a medication-only treatment; plenty of options exist for both nondrug treatments and therapy-drug combinations.
Union members rely on the board to help them maintain their health, and that means providing the resources to navigate a growing set of strategies for managing chronic pain. Speaking with members about their health concerns and helping them find care — from exploring opioid alternatives to discussing estimated costs — lets them know that the union has their best interests in mind.
Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather also blogs for two government-focused publications, GovLoop and NEOGOV, covering issues of importance to federal employees. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.