About 100 million Americans are burdened with physical pain that lasts for months, even years. This condition is called chronic pain, and it can greatly reduce a person’s quality of life. Despite so many people living with such pain, there is a general lack of understanding of what chronic pain is and the treatment options available. Even knowing which doctor to go to can be confusing.
That’s why the American Chronic Pain Association designated September as Pain Awareness Month and continues to offer a variety of outreach and educational materials. The Neurosurgery Blog, a site run by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and Congress of Neurological Surgeons, has also launched a series of articles on Pain. Dr. Winfree was asked to contribute to the series and his first article is titled Global Pain Initiative: Changing the Way People with Pain are Treated. More articles to come.
The first thing to know about chronic pain is that it has many causes. An injury, such as a back sprain, and ongoing disease, such as cancer or arthritis, are a couple of causes that can lead to lasting pain. For many patients though, the exact cause of pain may be unclear. Pain can arise in tissues and joints throughout the body—in the joints of the fingers or tissues in the back, face, arms or legs, for example.
Many conservative treatments are available for pain relief, such as medication, physical therapy and psychological therapy. For patients who do not find pain relief with conservative measures, neurosurgeons sometimes step in.
At Columbia’s Neurosurgical Pain Center, neurosurgeon Dr. Christopher Winfree treats a range of chronic pain conditions, including low back pain, leg pain, facial pain and pain after a stroke. Dr. Winfree offers a wide range of treatment options and always recommends the conservative ones first. Only when patients find no relief does he progress to more invasive treatments, namely surgery.
One cause of pain Dr. Winfree treats is a trapped nerve. A nerve can become trapped, or pinched, if it passes through a space too narrow, putting pressure on the nerve. The nerve responds by sending signals of pain and irritation to the brain. Dr. Winfree can relieve these unpleasant sensations by using surgical techniques to open the space, freeing the nerve from pressure.
Sometimes the body’s nervous system is not functioning properly, causing pain in areas where it shouldn’t; sometimes the exact cause of pain is unclear. In these situations, Dr. Winfree can surgically implant stimulators in the spine or along the nerve in question. The stimulators send weak pulses of electricity to the spinal cord or nerve, thereby overriding the pain signal.
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