What does a pain management doctor do? These highly-trained and highly-specialized doctors diagnose conditions, coordinate treatment, and provide ongoing care for pain patients. They work most often with chronic pain patients who have experienced symptoms for three months or longer. Let’s take a look at how pain management doctors provide this level of care, what you can expect during your first visit, and how to find pain management doctors near you.
What is a pain management doctor?
The American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine (ASRA) defines a pain management doctor as: “a physician with special training in evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of all different types of pain.”
Pain management doctors have advanced training that makes them a better fit if you suffer from pain. While your primary care doctor can and should help in some cases, for advanced types of pain they’ll likely refer you to a pain management doctor. A pain management doctor has gone through an additional one-year fellowship in pain management after their general residency. They’re also board-certified in their specialties.
A pain management doctor may treat pain related to acute sports injuries. Or, they can work with patients afflicted with cancer pain. Most, however, work with chronic pain patients. Pain is considered chronic if it’s lasted for three or more months. This type of pain can be hard to diagnose, require multiple therapies to treat, and take months or years to treat. However, some pain patients will require care throughout their life.
The most common types of conditions that a pain management doctor treats include:
- Lower back pain
- Knee pain
- Head pain and migraines
- Hip pain
- Neck pain
- Nerve pain
You can find more information about all of these conditions in our pain library.
So, what does a pain management doctor do? They treat pain. But the complexities of pain make this a much more specialized area of healthcare than that simple answer lets on.
What is a pain clinic?
A pain management doctor operates most often out of pain clinics. Pain clinics differ in their approach, but the best ones will coordinate a comprehensive, team-based, and holistic approach to managing and treating your pain. This team approach is the best way to diagnose the cause of your pain and find treatments that work.
“These health care providers are likely to include doctors of different specialties as well as non-physician providers specializing in the diagnosis and management of chronic pain. These providers may include psychologists, physical therapists, and complementary and alternative therapists such as acupuncturists or massage therapists.”
You may also work with:
- Interventional pain management doctors
- Health and wellness counselors
- Biofeedback specialists
The best pain clinics will also combine a warm, caring approach with access to the most advanced cutting-edge treatment options for pain.
What does a pain management doctor do?
Your pain management timeline will vary depending on your condition, but most patients can expect to go through these steps. The following video also shows how two interventional pain management doctors from Arizona approach the topic of comprehensive pain management.
1. Diagnoses the cause of your pain
Diagnosing the exact cause of your pain is the first step to finding a treatment that works. A pain management doctor is specialized in the many causes of pain, and the underlying conditions leading to pain.
Pain isn’t straightforward. Lower back pain could be caused by many conditions, for example. It could be musculoskeletal in nature and related to your posture at your work desk, where a forward-leaning head is putting pressure on your neck that’s felt down to your back. Your lower back pain could be due to a herniated disc or spinal stenosis. It could be related to sciatica. Or, your pain could be due to a degenerative condition like arthritis or degenerative disc disease.
And that’s just one pain condition. HealthCommunities.com explains:
“Pain management specialists use a number of techniques to diagnose and treat pain disorders. Pain evaluations often include taking a personal and family medical history, assessing the patient’s lifestyle (e.g., activity level), reviewing prior tests (e.g., blood tests, imaging tests, electrodiagnostic studies), and performing a physical examination.”
2. Discusses potential therapies that could help
With their specialized training, pain management doctors have access to the latest research on therapies that work. They’re also likely conducting their own trials and studies on patients whose pain hasn’t responded to conventional therapies.
After diagnosing your pain, a pain management doctor will review available therapies for your condition and find the one that works best for you. Great pain doctors will use interventional or pharmaceutical treatments in conjunction with complementary therapies. For many patients, using complementary therapies can reduce the amount of medication you have to take or the procedures you have to undergo.
Your pain management plan may include a variety of complementary therapies, including:
- Weight loss
- Physical therapy
- Diet changes
- Chiropractic care
Prescription medications may include:
- Muscle relaxers
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications
Interventional treatments may include:
- Epidural steroid injections
- Nerve blocks
- Joint injections
- Radiofrequency ablation
- Spinal cord stimulation
Read more about each of these therapies in our post on interventional pain management.
Although no single remedy will cure your pain, combining multiple methods can help you find the best mix to maximize your quality of life. In severe cases, surgery may be warranted. This should only be used when other less invasive methods haven’t worked, or your condition is seriously affecting your quality of life.
A note on medications
If you do use prescription medications to manage your pain, it’s important to be smart about taking it. Additionally, your pain management plan shouldn’t rely entirely on medications. If your pain management doctor suggests this, it may be time to see a new doctor.
Next, you may be seeing multiple doctors, even taking prescriptions written by different doctors. Update each doctor about all the medications you take. This is critical for ensuring appropriate dosages and preventing unsafe drug interactions. Sometimes, two separate drugs should not be taken together because of the way they interact in the body. Doctors working in different practices may not communicate with one another. As a result, each medical professional you see may only have the ability to review the records he or she keeps. That’s why updating your pain management doctors and telling them about all the medications you take is so important for creating a safe and effective painkiller management plan.
Next, stick to your doctor-recommended dosage. Taking more medicine than prescribed can lead to serious health impacts, or even overdose. If your existing dose does not alleviate your suffering, call your doctor to discuss your symptoms and possible treatments. Making sure to stay in close contact with your health care provider and consulting them before making any changes can help you keep safe and your pain managed.
3. Coordinates care between multiple healthcare professionals
Your pain management doctor acts as the lead in your pain management plan. As a post on ZocDoc explains:
“The discipline is multidisciplinary, meaning that you don’t just see a doctor but also will likely have the opportunity to interact with a physical therapist and a counselor. In this way, a comprehensive holistic plan for addressing your pain can be developed.”
Once your pain management doctor has determined the types of therapies that could work for you, they’ll coordinate your care across multiple doctors and healthcare professionals. While you’ll need to be a dedicated and responsive advocate for your care, you can put a lot of responsibility on your pain doctor and clinic for coordinating that care.
4. Performs any interventional procedures
If you do need interventional treatments, such as steroid injections or neuromodulation, your pain management doctor will likely perform them. You can find live videos of many procedures on our YouTube channel. These can help you know what to expect before your procedure, and during your recovery. You can see an example of this in the following radiofrequency ablation video.
Again, a good pain management doctor should be combining these interventional procedures with complementary therapies to reduce the risk of side effects and improve your overall health outcomes.
5. Continues ongoing care for mental and physical concerns
Unfortunately, for many patients, visiting a pain management doctor won’t provide full relief from pain. As one pain management doctor writes:
“Especially if you’re experiencing chronic back or knee pain, in many cases, we consider your treatment a success if we get rid of 50 percent of your pain and help you to be more functional.”
Because of the burden of chronic pain, a good pain doctor will work with you to continue treatments that relieve your symptoms. They’ll also introduce therapies that help to relieve the mental burden of chronic pain, such as talk therapy or meditation.
Should I visit a pain management doctor?
When should you visit a pain doctor?
- If pain is ruling your life or limiting the amount of activities you can engage in
- You’ve tried at-home or natural therapies to relieve your pain and haven’t found relief
- If your primary care doctor hasn’t been able to diagnose the cause of your pain
- Your pain has lasted for three months or more
- You have any severe or debilitating types of pain
As EverydayHealth explains:
“As with any ailment, the first stop for patients looking for pain treatment should be their primary care physician. However, if you can’t find a satisfactory pain management program within an appropriate length of time or if your pain is getting worse, referral to a pain specialist may be the next step.”
What should I bring to my first visit to a pain management doctor?
For your first visit, your doctor will focus on diagnosing the exact cause of your pain. Because of this, you should bring:
- A pain journal (if you have one) that details your symptoms, triggers, and pain intensity over a given period
- Your treatment history, as well as any X-ray or MRI scans
- A list of any medications you’re currently taking
- Your insurance information
- Any information about what makes your pain better or worse
A forum post on Drugs.com also has answers to this question from pain patients across the U.S. Most of all, make sure to be honest and upfront during your first visit. Explain exactly how you’re feeling, what you’ve tried, as well as your for pain relief. A good pain doctor will listen to your concerns with a compassionate ear and work to put together a pain management plan.
How to find pain doctors near me?
Of course, once you know you want to visit a pain doctor, your first step will be finding one that can help with your pain. ASRA recommends:
“The most important consideration in looking for a pain management specialist is to find someone who has the training and experience to help you with your particular pain problem and with whom you feel a comfortable rapport. Since many types of chronic pain may require a complex treatment plan as well as specialized interventional techniques, pain specialists today must have more training than in the past, and you should learn about how your pain physician was trained and whether he or she has board certification in pain management.”
You can find more information about finding a compassionate, highly-qualified pain management doctor in our post, “How To Find Pain Management Doctors Near You.” We recommend using credentials, as suggested by ASRA, as well as with personal or online reviews to narrow your search. The Arthritis Foundation also has a great list of questions to ask a potential pain clinic before committing to treatment.
You can also find a listing of all of the PainDoctor.com-certified pain management doctors by clicking the button below. These doctors are highly-trained and part of a network of doctors committed to relieving your pain.