When most people think of pain, they imagine the brief periods of discomfort that they get from falling, touching a hot pan, or stepping on a sharp object. Brief pains don't usually require medical attention unless they exist in combination with a serious injury. However, chronic pain, generally defined as that which lasts more than 12 weeks, is serious and requires treatment. Affecting about 100 million people in the U.S., chronic pain is the leading cause of disability nationwide. Those affected by severe and ongoing pain may need assistance from a trained pain management specialist.

What Is a Pain Management Specialist?

Pain management specialists are medical doctors trained in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of different types of pain. They use various techniques to reduce the amount of pain that patients experience and help them find ways to cope with long-term pain.

Specialists often treat patients who have intense pain from certain disorders. They may also treat pain with no apparent cause.

Reasons to See a Pain Management Specialist

There are numerous diseases and health conditions that can cause severe, chronic pain requiring attention from a pain management specialist. Some of these include:

If you experience recurring or chronic pain that prevents you from leading a normal life, then you should see your primary care doctor to determine whether you need help from an experienced pain management specialist.

What Does a Pain Management Specialist Do?

Pain management specialists use a variety of strategies to help people living with pain. Some of the most common techniques used to control pain are:

Pain management specialists encourage their patients to make lifestyle changes when possible. For instance, an overweight person who lives with intense lower back pain may find some relief by losing weight. Similarly, a sedentary person may find relief by strengthening back muscles through therapeutic exercise.

Doctors try to avoid prescribing long-term pain medication to patients because those drugs can quickly lead to addiction. Over time, patients may need to take higher doses to get the same relief that they once got from smaller amounts of prescription drugs. Using opiates for an extended time can cause slowed breathing, heart infections, compromised immune systems, sedation, and greater sensitivity to pain. Opioid medication should be reserved as a last-resort treatment option.

Possible Subspecialties

Although most pain management specialists work with a wide variety of pain-related conditions, some choose to work in subspecialties such as:

  • Back and neck pain
  • Post-operative pain
  • Psychosomatic pain (pain caused by a psychological condition)

Care by a general pain management specialist is suitable for most patients, but certain conditions may require a higher level of expertise.

How Is a Pain Management Specialist Certified?

Pain management specialists are highly educated in their field. They must complete medical school, a residency, and a fellowship that specializes in pain management.

Following completion of education requirements, these specialists seek certification in their field. Several medical organizations certify pain management specialists. When choosing a doctor, look for one that has been certified by a medical group such as:

  • American Board of Pain Medicine
  • American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • American Board of Anesthesiology
  • American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine

Making sure that your pain management specialist has been certified can have a significant impact on your short- and long-term health. Your specialist may ultimately need to prescribe powerful narcotics to control your pain. The wrong combination of drugs could damage your liver, kidneys, and digestive system.

Certified specialists should also know how to treat pain while minimizing the risk of addiction.

Referral and Research

If you struggle with pain, then you should start by seeking help from your general practitioner or family doctor. Your doctor may have suggestions that keep your pain under control. If you don't find the relief that you need, consider seeking a pain management specialist who works with the type of condition that you have. You should feel free to talk to several specialists before you decide which one you trust to care for your medical needs. For help finding a doctor, try Caredash's search tool.

Questions You Should Ask Your Pain Management Specialist

You will need to ask several questions to make sure you choose a pain management specialist who can help you live a more comfortable life. Consider asking the following questions when you meet a new pain management specialist.

  • How long have you specialized in pain management? You want to find an experienced doctor who knows a variety of pain management techniques.
  • Do you work with patients who have my condition? Since some doctors specialize in certain types of pains, you may need to choose one who's familiar with your health condition.
  • Are there non-drug treatments that I can try? Prescription pain medications can work wonders for some people, but they often lead to other health conditions. You should find a doctor who understands the needs of your long-term health. For most patients, that means finding a specialist willing to try non-drug treatments or treatments that use a combination of drugs and exercise.
  • Do you accept my health insurance? Choosing an in-network specialist can make your medical bills more affordable. You may also need to seek approval from your health insurance company.

If you don't feel like a doctor has answered your questions well, then you may want to find another specialist. It's important to trust your pain management specialist as much as you trust your general practitioner.