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Why Modern Medicine Struggles With Treating Chronic Pain

Ross’s answer is to look for a middle ground between research science and more creative options, and to remember that modern medicine is both marvelous and still often wrong. He writes:

What we need, I’m convinced, are more people and institutions that sustain a position somewhere in between. We need a worldview that recognizes that our establishment fails in all kinds of ways, that there’s a wider range of experiences than what fits within the current academic-bureaucratic lines … and yet at the same time still accepts the core achievements of modern science.

In practical terms, he offers several pieces of advice, including: Impatience is your friend. If your doctor struggles to help you, you’ll need to help yourself. Trust your own experience of your body. Experiment, experiment, experiment. (He wrote a column last year laying these out, with a focus on “long Covid” patients.)

After reading Ross’s book and talking with him about it, I was reminded of how often modern medicine is both a vital part of treatment and an incomplete one. For many people, the path to a healthier, better life involves not only a doctor’s treatment but also some combination of physical therapy, dietary changes, exercise, massage, acupuncture, podiatry and more.

In the future, it’s even possible that medical science will come to understand why some of those measures worked better than a doctor’s approach. Medicine is a changing discipline, and it always will be.

In the conclusion of “Deep Places,” Ross ends on a note of optimism:

I am writing this story in part for those chronically suffering, more numerous than the healthy ever realize — to give them hope that their condition can be changed even if it can’t be eliminated, that they might be able to save their own lives even if they feel abandoned by their doctors, that they might, like me, be able to get, not fully well yet, but better, genuinely better.

Related: My colleagues in the Well section examine recent changes in how people understand and treat chronic pain. “The latest science shows that there are many powerful tools available to patients to take control of the pain in their lives — and perhaps begin anew,” Erik Vance writes in the introduction.

The package includes articles on the new science of pain; cognitive behavioral therapy (or C.B.T.); the role of exercise; and how one patient built her own care team.

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