My Chronic Pain Panel Notes

Just finished the Freethought Blogs Conscience panel on chronic pain (you can watch the full recording of the panel at the link), and figured it might be helpful for some people if I posted the notes I took for my answers to particular questions. They are a little bit rough, since they were written only for me, but a couple of resources I neglected to mention are in them, and a couple of thoughts that time didn’t permit getting to (though we may do another, similar panel in the future to try to touch on more related topics).

Introductions and basic descriptions of the chronic pain issues each of us is dealing with.

Tendonitis in my arms from programming, and a history of chronic back pain most recently diagnosed as “myofascial pain syndrome”. I tend to think of it as nonspecific low back pain, most likely neuropathic. Back pain diagnoses tend to overlap due to our poor understanding of their causes.

What is the experience of chronic pain like for you? How does it affect your day-to-day life, and how does it affect your participation in communities like the skeptic community?

It means I have to think about the things that I do all the time. Too much exercise aggravates it, but being too sedentary also aggravates it. I am generally looking for a middle ground.

One of the things to know about chronic pain is that for many people, it doesn’t come and go so much as it oscillates between low grade and high grade pain.

The question of whether or not to do an activity is rarely a question of “Will this hurt or will it not?” But a question of “Will I be able to handle how much this will hurt or will I not?”

What are some of the myths you’ve encountered about chronic pain, or about people who have chronic pain?

That it is a structural problem. It can be a structural problem, but the frequency with which back pain is due to structural issues appears to be far lower than the frequency with which it is diagnosed as a structural issue.

That people who have it are weak.

That it is “all in your head”. Strictly speaking, it is, but, as Dumbledore said, “Why on earth should that mean that it isn’t real?” Jealousy is also all in your head, but you never hear anyone dismiss it because of that. Just because something is a product of the brain doesn’t mean your brain will listen to you about it. “In your head” is trivially true.

How can we promote a skeptical perspective on treating pain without denigrating people who are to the point of grasping at straws to manage their pain issues?

This is very difficult. Go after the industry and not individual sufferers.

Why should the skeptic community care about chronic pain?

Because it’s everywhere. Just in America, chronic pain affects more people than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. It costs the US an annual estimated $560-$635 billion (relieving pain in America). It’s everywhere, and like all widespread conditions that we don’t fully medically understand, the industries that treat chronic pain are infested with woo.

Example: acupuncture versus dry needling.

The point of intersectionality for a movement aside from that it’s the right thing to do is that the more people we include and support in our movement, the better our answer when we go up against truly powerful political and economic forces, and those forces ask, “You and what army?”

What can the skeptic community do to be more welcoming and accessible to people with chronic pain?

Have more conferences like this one. Advocate for better research practices. Support the all trials campaign ( Make an effort to be good about accessibility.

What good resources are out there for skeptical perspectives on chronic pain issues?

The body in mind blog, explain pain, save,