Consumer Reports Investigates What Causes Pain, What Treats It, What Doesn’t—and How to Prevent It

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Also, CR looks at the prescription painkiller epidemic, efforts to curb overuse of opioids, and surprising truths about medical marijuana

Consumer Reports June 2016

Consumers may be surprised to learn that for some pain conditions, non-drug treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, or just drinking water, may be as effective as medication.

Persistent and chronic pain can be a frustrating, debilitating and expensive problem. According to the June issue of Consumer Reports, 125 million Americans in pain spend about $300 billion on treatments and care every year. But not all of that care is effective, and some of it may be costly or even dangerous.

To help consumers make better, more informed choices, Consumer Reports took a closer look at the issue of treating pain in a special report on what works and what doesn’t—and developed guidance on how to treat common ailments—including back, neck and joint pain. The report also identified some surprising treatments that are proven effective, and those you should skip.

For example, overuse and abuse of prescription painkillers has become a national epidemic. In 2014, more than 14,000 Americans died from overdoses involving prescription opioids such as oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet) and hydrocodone (Vicodin). More than 1,000 people are treated in emergency rooms each day for misusing these drugs. But research has shown that over the long-term these drugs don’t help people with chronic pain find relief, and instead, expose them to the risk of overdose and addiction. In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued first-ever guidelines for doctors prescribing opioids for chronic pain, advising them to manage the condition with other remedies first before turning to opioids—and even then, to use the lowest effective dose.

“Consumers may be surprised to learn that for some pain conditions, non-drug treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, or just drinking water, may be as effective as medication,” said Lisa Gill, deputy content editor for Consumer Reports’ Best Buy Drugs. “In some cases the medication can have the opposite effect, and can cause the very same pain you’re trying to treat.”

The new report is available in the June issue of Consumer Reports and online at http://www.ConsumerReports.org. It includes a guide to common pain treatments, ranging from medication (such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and oxycodone) to other medical treatments (including steroid or Botox injections) and alternative treatments (like acupuncture, biofeedback, and massage to name a few). CR provides the pros and cons for each type of treatment, including side effects and effectiveness.

Consumer Reports also created a pain guide organized by what hurts: lower back, joints, head, neck and shoulder pain, and compiled information including what often causes the pain, common treatment options, when to seek emergency care, and how to prevent the pain before it starts.

Here’s a look at some of the surprising findings from the report, which is also available online at http://www.ConsumerReports.org:

1.    Prescription opioid painkillers aren’t as effective for chronic pain as once thought. And, taking these drugs over the long-term can increase the risk of overdose.
2.    Although legal in nearly half the U.S., medical marijuana carries risks. About 376,000 people went to emergency rooms in 2009 for problems like anxiety attacks, cardiac issues and accidents related to being under the influence. It’s also addictive for as many as 9 percent of adults and 16 percent of adolescents who use it frequently.
3.    Bed rest for lower back pain is a bad idea. Being immobile can prolong the pain. Better to do gentle movement like walking, swimming or yoga to gradually reduce pain and speed recovery.
4.    Try gentle exercise first, before painkillers, to treat knee and joint pain. Doing so can be as helpful as medications.
5.    Strengthening and stretching neck muscles can ease neck and shoulder pain. Poor posture, overexertion, stress and sleeping in the wrong position can exacerbate the problem.
6.    Headaches can be caused by overuse of over-the-counter pain drugs. Medications like Advil and Aleve can actually trigger headaches (known as “rebound headaches”) if you take them more than a few times in a week.

What Pain Sufferers Can Do

CR advises readers to work closely with their healthcare professionals to understand their pain in order to effectively treat it. To do that, pain sufferers must recognize that pain is not something to simply get rid of, but the body’s way of signaling that something is wrong. Effectively handling pain means listening to those signals and addressing the underlying cause of pain.

Getting the right treatment for pain begins with effective communication. CR provides a guide for how to communicate about pain to health care professionals by answering specific questions: how intense the pain is, what it feels like, where it hurts, what makes it better, and when it started. Walking through these questions can help experts diagnose exactly what is causing pain and the most effective treatment options.

Consumer Reports has a long history of examining the causes of and treatments for pain and providing valuable insights to pain sufferers. CR also offers services including the Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs initiative, which, since 2004, has equipped consumers with free information about the effectiveness, safety, and cost of medications.
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About Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization working to improve the lives of consumers by driving marketplace change. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports tests and rates thousands of products and services in its 50-plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications, Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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Douglas Love