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A Call to Revolutionize Chronic Pain Care in America: An Opportunity in Health Care Reform

Twenty Years of Debilitating Pain

Gina Libby, age 40, has suffered from lower back pain for 20 years.

She traces the pain back to corrective surgery she had in 1990 for a condition called scoliosis, a curving of the spine. Surgeons fused the bones in her spine together and held them in place with metal rods.

At first, the pain was mild. But by the time Libby turned 30 the pain was severe. The doctors checked the fusion with an x-ray and then sent her home.

“The pain wasn’t really addressed,” she says.

During the 10-year period from age 30 to 40, Libby went from doctor to doctor but either received episodic treatment or no care at all. She never got a solid diagnosis. Some doctors attributed the pain to the fusion surgery and others chalked the pain up to arthritis, an inflammation of the joints.

Meanwhile, the pain got worse and it began to interfere with her performance at work as a food and drug investigator for California. By age 34, the pain was so constant and so severe that she had to resign. “I could no longer function,” she says now about the debilitating pain.

Then Libby got hit with anxiety and depression. “I had always been such a high achiever,” she says. The constant pain interfered with her ability to carry out a daily routine.

After decades of failed treatment, Libby connected with a doctor trained to deal with chronic pain who prescribed long-acting pain medications, acupuncture, talk therapy, steroid injections and a nerve block.

She’s nearly pain free now.

Looking back, Libby wishes that she’d gotten relief for her pain long ago, and thinks that such prompt treatment might have prevented some of the pain she still deals with on some days.

In fact, research suggests that when pain goes on for a long time, there is a greater risk that it will turn into a chronic syndrome, an illness that can be managed but can’t be cured. “My life isn’t perfect,” Libby says. “But now that I have the appropriate pain care I can do the things that I love to do.” And that makes a huge difference in her life.