Beating Back the Stigma of Pain Treatment

If celebrity gossip were the stock market, Paula Abdul's shares would be on a solid uptick.

Her hit program "American Idol" started Tuesday — with no writers needed — and reports that she's in talks to sing at the Super Bowl halftime show.

Abdul, who has endured more than her share of bad Hollywood gossip, also has a condition not shared by many fellow celebrities. She's one of millions of Americans who suffer from chronic pain.

Acknowledging Her Pain

In a 2005 interview, Abdul was straight up with People magazine, confirming that she had taken powerful drugs before — Oxycontin, Vicodin, Soma — but all in an excruciating trial-and-error process to beat her chronic pain.

Abdul claimed to suffer from a condition called Regional Sympathetic Dystrophy, or Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. The condition, she said, started with a cheerleading neck injury that sent her body into a mysterious chain reaction of pain symptoms that spiraled into intolerable pain over decades.

Chronic pain may be mysterious, but it's not uncommon. About 10 percent of people suffer from pain that lasts longer than a year, according to 2002 statistics from the American Pain Foundation. For people with neuropathy, spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases, chronic pain can last for decades — and sometimes require drugs with side effects that can leave people drowsy, nauseous, or suffering from memory lapses to make life tolerable.

Getting Acceptance

"We don't want sympathy at all, we just want empathy; we want understanding," says Mike K. Buckley, 51, a retired firefighter in Massachusetts who suffers from chronic pain.

In the summer of 2002, Buckley pulled a fire hose toward a blaze in full gear. With just one unnatural turn, two discs in the middle of his back bulged into his spinal cord.

This single injury has sent him to the emergency room 20 times in the past four years, every time in a bout of excruciating pain.

Buckley stayed at work for three years, even after a T-bone car accident injured a third disc in his spine, making his chronic pain condition inoperable.

"Oh you're taking Oxycontin? Are you addicted?" Buckley remembers his fellow firefighters asking. "I used to joke with people: I wished I was just getting high off of this!"

In fact, most chronic pain patients won't get high with a well-managed dose of opioids like Oxycontin, says Dr. Elliot Krane, professor of anesthesia and pediatrics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

"All of us have had patients on grams and grams — rather than milligrams — of morphine or hydropmorphone, for example, who have been very functional," said Krane, "whereas the same dose would render the opioid-naïve patient comatose."

Prescription Woes

Prescriptions for opioids took off in the 1980s and 1990s with the realization that short-term painkillers could help chronic pain patients in the long term, says Dr. Joe Shurman, chairman of pain management at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif.

Unfortunately, in the late 1990s, the drug Oxycontin left a wake of reports of prescription painkiller overdoses and abuses skyrocketed.

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