What Is Pain Management? A Patient and Doctor Explain

Updated: May 20, 2024

Chronic or severe pain can hurt your quality of life and make you feel hopeless. A pain management doctor describes his role "minimizing the impact of the pain."

After a decade of being bounced from doctor to doctor, Kelly Donovan, 43, was tired. She was tired of the endless string of changing diagnoses. She was tired of never getting any real answers. Mostly she was tired of being in pain all the time. By 2021 her chronic pain had become disabling to the point she considered retiring early and applying for permanent disability. But first, she decided to try one last thing: Seeing a pain management doctor.

“I’d never heard of this kind of doctor before until one of my regular doctors mentioned it,” says the mom of two in Arvada, CO. “I went home and immediately started Googling it. I found a local pain management doctor, made an appointment, and I’m so glad I did.”

The pain specialist interviewed Donovan, ran some additional tests, and then developed a plan to treat the sources of her chronic pain and to manage any residual pain. While she isn’t 100% pain-free today, she’s able to mostly do what she needs to do, including taking care of her children, running a preschool, and resuming her hobbies.

Some sources citing national data suggest 50 million Americans experience chronic pain. “Pain management gave me my life back,” this patient reflects.

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Here’s what pain management is, says an expert doctor

Pain management is its own field of medicine as a specialization focused on alleviating or controlling patients’ pain. This pain can be acute or chronic and can be the result of an injury, illness, medical condition, surgery, chronic disease, emotional trauma or distress, or other causes.

Ilan Danan, MD, a pain management doctor at the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, explains, “The goal of pain management is to relieve or manage pain symptoms so the person can live a happy, satisfactory life.” Dr. Danan adds: “As a pain management specialist, I help patients make a plan. I always want to get rid of the pain—but that’s not always possible, so then we help patients manage it. We want to help them minimize the impact of pain while improving their function and wellbeing.”

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Here’s what a pain management doctor does

While most medical doctors are trained to help mitigate pain, specialists in pain management have received additional training in this field and it’s all they treat so they become very good at understanding it. “Pain is actually a very complex response that requires its own study and field of medicine,” Dr. Danan says. “We have access to additional testing and resources to help you beyond what a general practitioner or surgeon might.”

Dr. Ilan says your primary care doctor may not have the resources to examine all aspects of your pain, so they’ll refer out to a specialist.

Once you’ve been referred to a pain management specialist, expect him or her to take a detailed history, perhaps order more tests, and look at your pain severity, duration, and resulting function impairment. From there, you will come up with a pain management plan together.

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What is included in pain management?

When people think of pain relief, they often first think of pain medication—and while a pain management plan may include some medications, it’s much more than that, Dr. Danan says. Pain management is “a holistic approach that deals with all the aspects of pain, using medical, physical, mental, and functional interventions,” he explains.

A comprehensive pain management plan may include:

Medical interventions: injections (like cortisone shots), nerve blocks, ketamine treatments (where legal) or medications

Physical interventions: physical therapy, exercise, acupuncture, professional massage, self-massage (like with a theragun) or yoga

Psychological interventions: biofeedback, meditation, autonomic quieting, cognitive behavioral therapy, animal therapy, or talk therapy

Functional interventions: adaptive devices (like a back posture corrector or a back stretcher), occupational therapy, environmental accommodations or behavioral changes

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How to know if you need a pain management doctor

Anyone suffering from pain that interferes with their life can benefit from seeing a pain management doctor. Often these specialists work with patients who have chronic pain or are rehabilitating after a surgery or injury.

One of the most common reasons people seek pain management therapy is for back pain, including latissimus dorsi pain, low back pain, or muscle spasms. However, many pain management doctors can help with everything from foot pain to painful sex.

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Why pain management is important

Dr. Danan says, “Pain, especially chronic and/or severe pain, affects every aspect of your life, compromising your mood, behavior, relationships, and overall well being. Left untreated, it can create a vicious cycle that becomes disabling, leaving you feeling hopeless,” he says. “There’s no reason for you to suffer alone or just endure pain. We can help you. There is hope.”

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