Understanding advances in chronic pain control

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More than 76 million Americans deal with chronic pain every day.

In the new issue of Time magazine, an article features some of the latest advances in treating chronic pain.

On "The Early Show" Friday, CBS New Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton highlighted some of those innovations and what it could mean for patients dealing with this type of pain.

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But what exactly is considered chronic pain?

She explained, "The definition really of chronic pain is pain that continues outside of the normal healing period. And it can come from a variety of sources in our anatomy. It can come from muscles or joints. It can come from solid organs like your stomach or your uterus. And it can be absolutely debilitating. And because you can't see it, you know, it's really so subjective it can be very, very challenging to treat."

Ashton continued, "Everyone will give you a different answer. About 80 percent of people who tell you they live with chronic pain don't say that they get good treatment for that. And part of the reason is there's no one test. There's no blood test. There's no scale that in medicine we use in this country to say, you know, this is objectively how much pain you're dealing with. So we really rely on the patient and what they're saying. As we know, everyone has a different pain tolerance and pain threshold."

Co-anchor Erica Hill said, "There does seem to be over the last few years, anyway, one of the main ways of treating it seems to be with prescription drugs. (Prescriptions) have gone up for things like Vicodin and Oxycontin."

"You talk about the class of medication known as opioid narcotics," she said. "The use and prescriptions written for these types of medications has absolutely skyrocketed over the past. And there are a couple of issues about that. The biggest one, from the way I see it in the medical community is that as physicians we typically under treat chronic pain dramatically. We're afraid of making the patient into an addict. We're afraid of making the patient dependent on this class of medication. When, in fact, the principle in treating chronic pain is to use the right dose of the medication that works."

She explained, "So, I might think it's a high dose of narcotics but if it works to relieve your pain, that's the appropriate dose. Now the flip side of that, when you talk about opioid narcotics is that absolutely, they can be habit-forming. When you talk about someone who's living with chronic pain, they might need to be on these medications indefinitely."

Ashton said alternative treatment should also be considered in conjunction with prescriptions.

"You've probably heard of the term functional MRI," she said. "A lot of it has to do with the theory of brain mapping. We know that there are pain centers in the brain and the brain releases certain chemicals, they're called neurotransmitters, in response to pain. Part of the research is using functional MRIs to stimulate not just the pain centers, but the pleasure centers, and retrain someone's brain to deal with pain. Then, of course, you talk about alternative ways of treating it, things like massage, or acupuncture, yoga, certain types of exercise can be very, very helpful in conjunction with other things."