I came across an interesting opinion piece this week in the New York Times Sunday Review by an author named Firoozeh Dumas. You can find the article here (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/27/opinion/sunday/surgery-germany-vicodin.html?referer=https://www.google.com/). She titled that article, ¨After Surgery in Germany, I Wanted Vicodin, Not Herbal Tea,¨ and discusses her experience as an American having a hysterectomy while living in Germany. While the article briefly talks about the differences between managed, government care in Europe compared with our system in the United States, her main focus in on the difference in pain management after surgery.
She talks about asking 3 times (to her gynecologist, her surgeon, and the anesthesiologist) about getting strong medicines so she wouldn’t have to feel any pain and 3 times being told that she would not need more than Ibuprofen. The anesthesiologist took it even further, saying that the mild pain she would experience would be helpful so that she did not overdo it. To quote from the article:
“Pain is a part of life. We cannot eliminate it nor do we want to. The pain will guide you. You will know when to rest more; you will know when you are healing. If I give you Vicodin, you will no longer feel the pain, yes, but you will no longer know what your body is telling you. You might overexert yourself because you are no longer feeling the pain signals. All you need is rest. And please be careful with ibuprofen. It’s not good for your kidneys. Only take it if you must. Your body will heal itself with rest.”
This is a startlingly different perspective than in the United States where people are regularly prescribed 20-30 Vicodins for a minor dental procedure. I find this article telling as one of the possible reasons that we are having such an opiate crisis in this country.
We have come to see all pain as bad and we need to find ways to block it as much as possible. Pain, however, does serve a purpose. It lets us know that we need to slow down and rest. It shows that there is some imbalance in our body. I have seen people who ended up getting worse – possibly with a secondary infection or further injury – by taking pain medicines to block the signals their body was telling them. We often take pain medications so that we can continue doing the very activity that is causing the pain – think athletes, carpal tunnel syndrome or other injuries from repetitive motions at work or play.
I have seen moms and dads run right to Tylenol or Ibuprofen for every teething pain a baby experiences. Babies, however, have teethed without access to these relatively modern tools for thousands of years. I have heard people state that a teething pain cycle is around 20-30 minutes and then improves on its own so that by the time the medicine gets into the body, it probably would have gotten better on its own. I also believe there can be some benefits early on to learning how to cope with pain, because it is a part of life that is inevitable.
I am not saying that someone should never take pain medications. Unbearable pain or pain that is preventing sleeping and rest can benefit at times from something that brings relief. I do think as a culture we are too quick to medicalize every minor problem and run to prevent ourselves from feeling it.
The author describes the experience of learning to rest and finding that herbal tea could bring a level of soothing comfort during the healing process. I think we all could learn something from this as well. Next time you experience pain, try to figure out what your body is trying to tell you. Do I have this headache because I am dehydrated? Does this aching feeling with a cold/flu mean my body could use a rest? Could I find a less toxic way to make myself comfortable through my body’s healing process? I can guarantee that you are not experiencing pain because you have an ibuprofen deficiency.
And while I think this article is interesting on the individual level, I do believe that it has larger implications for our society. The United States has 5% of the world’s population is currently using 80% of the world opioid supply. According to the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/drug-use-therapeutic.htmn), analgesics (pain medications) are the #1 type of medicines prescribed at doctor visits in the United States. I don´t believe that we experience any more pain than people in other countries, but our cultural paradigm is to run to a medication solution as a first line of defense. I think we could learn a lesson from these wise German doctors interaction with this American author.