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by Cynthia J. Koelker, MD
Excerpt from Armageddon Medicine, How to Be Your Own Doctor in 2012 and Beyond
The daily queue of suffering seems endless. Toothache, stomachache, headache, earache, back pain, leg pain, joint pain, neck pain, sore throat, sore feet, sore muscles, sore eyes. People come to you seeking relief – relief from their pain, and relief from fear. Are you up to the task of helping others, or ready to run away? Becoming a healer is not for the faint of heart.
If and when the medical community collapses, those left to carry on will need an armamentarium of tools to deal with pain. Even if it’s only your own problems and those of your family that you’ll be facing, learning how to relieve pain now, before you’re in the midst of crisis, will spare you needless worry. Pain is the #1 symptom that drives patients to physicians today. Pain will remain a fearsome opponent tomorrow, no matter what catastrophe brings the world to its knees.
Pain and fear go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin. Fear is pain’s best friend, its evil ally. Relieve one and the other may subside, at least to tolerable levels. I know what it is to fear pain. Every time I visit the dentist my childhood dread of drilling on a nerve rears its ugly head. It’s not a rational process. My childhood dentist didn’t believe in novocain. I’ll never get over it.
People can often tolerate an amazing degree of pain if given hope that the condition is only temporary. Labor pain is every bit as bad as any other sort of pain, yet how many women suffer through hour after hour of gut-wrenching torture without requesting so much as an aspirin? People will also endure an incredible amount of pain if they believe good will come of it – such as a new baby, or saving another’s life.
As a healer, you’ll need to dispense more than a dose of narcotics. Having enough medical knowledge to understand a disease process will help you foresee the course of the disease and offer hope of recovery. Even if you cannot relieve the pain, you can relieve fear – both fear of unending pain, and fear of being alone. If you lack the tools to deaden the pain, don’t think you’re doing no good. Like a child who wants his boo-boo kissed, adults, too, want to know that someone cares.
In this regard, doctors are not necessarily the best healers. Physicians are aloof by training and sometimes by nature. Once you try helping others, you’ll learn that part of the patient’s suffering becomes your own. Taking on the pain of the world is a crushing burden. Doctors cannot function when they are overwhelmed by too heavy a load, and so often limit their emotional involvement. But emotional involvement is a powerful salve. An infant with an earache may be comforted in its mother’s arms. “Hold me” may be a laboring wife’s request of her husband, knowing he cannot take the pain away.
I emphasize the non-medicinal treatments of pain because: 1) sooner or later they may be all you have; 2) stretching your supply of pain relievers will help you treat more patients; and 3) many people are intolerant of or allergic to pain medications.
The best way to relieve pain is to eliminate the underlying cause. Deliver the baby, lance the abscess, pass the kidney stone. Pain is your friend when it comes to diagnosis, but sometimes you’ll just have to treat it regardless of cause.
|The English language has many words for various kinds of pain: aching, stabbing, burning, stinging, piercing, numbing, cramping, throbbing, tingling, smarting, lancinating, agonizing, and nagging, to mention the most common. The type of pain will clue you as to both cause and severity. The fluent or bodily-aware patient will be able to describe their discomfort in some detail. Others will simply say they hurt.|
Beyond what a patient may say, their body language will alert you to the intensity of their distress. A smiling teenager flirting with her beaux does not need narcotics, even though she says she’s dying of pain. A silent man curled up in the fetal position has something serious going on.
The art of medicine includes deciphering both what a patient wants and needs. Some patients request no medicine, if they can only be permitted a day off work. Others prefer to pop a pill and keep going. In America, we overmedicate because we rest too little. Sleep is a powerful analgesic. If pain medication is not available, simply getting a person to rest and/or sleep may be the ticket to relief.
Doctors use many classes of drugs to alleviate or prevent pain: anti-inflammatories, steroids, narcotics, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, anti-seizure drugs, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, triptans, muscle relaxers, sedating antihistamines, caffeine, nitroglycerin, antacids, oxygen, anesthetics, and even alcohol. We don’t always know how these drugs work. A patient does not have to be depressed for an anti-depressant to relieve pain. Thinking beyond traditional pain medications will broaden your ability to offer relief.
|On treating pain-
Whereas patients focus on pain abatement, doctors often focus on functional improvement. Generally speaking, physicians do not necessarily aim for complete relief of pain, but rather sufficient improvement to permit adequate functioning. Relieving all pain can actually make a situation worse, allowing the patient to injure himself. A truck driver with chronic back pain may say he’s feeling no better, but now is able to unload his cargo. A migraine patient may report her headaches are as bad as usual, but hasn’t missed a day of work in a year. It is difficult to measure how much a patient hurts. It’s much easier to measure how well a patient functions.
Despite current medical thinking, I’m not much of a believer in patient-reported pain scales, though others find them useful. Among my patients, they seem to make little difference in clinical treatment, at least with chronic pain. Patients have difficulty remembering how much they were hurting last week or last month compared to now.
The one situation where a pain scale may be useful is where short-term observation (hours to days) of a hurting patient is possible. Asking the patient to report pain on a scale of 0 to 10 may yield a measure of improvement, or lack thereof. In the current medical environment, pain scales are often more a matter of documentation than a meaningful addition to medical care. It makes little sense to collect the information if it is not going to be used as a basis for treatment. Patients must understand the scale well to offer significant feedback. Many patients will report their pain as 8 or 9 out of 10 when it is obvious from their behavior that it is not this intense. If you are going to use a pain scale, take the time to explain it thoroughly. It also helps to use words or pictures to demonstrate the degree of pain, as in the list* below. Check online if you want an example with pictures.
0 – No pain
2 – Annoying
4 – Uncomfortable
6 – Dreadful
8 – Horrible
10 – Agonizing
When doctors evaluate pain, one of the immediate goals is to determine if it is life-threatening or not. Is chest pain a heart attack? Is abdominal pain appendicitis? If you think you have an emergency on your hands and have the option of referring to a hospital or physician, please do so. But the goal of this discussion is to focus on what you can offer on your own, without emergency back-up. Here are a few examples to consider:
Up to this point, we haven’t mentioned pain relievers per se. Oxygen, positioning, and nitroglycerin may not only improve the underlying problem, but also relieve the patient’s discomfort to a degree. As for direct pain treatment, you probably won’t have injectable morphine available, but oral Vicodin, Percocet, or even tramadol may offer some relief. Nausea frequently accompanies severe heart pain, and you may need to treat with OTC meclizine or a prescription anti-emetic (Phenergan, Vistaril, Compazine) to allow the patient to keep narcotics down. Also, if the patient is agitated, calming him may decrease his oxygen consumption, thereby decreasing chest pain. Valium, Xanax, or Ativan (all controlled prescription drugs) may be helpful.
Say a patient is experiencing excruciating chest pain in association with a likely heart attack. What can you do about it? First, give the patient an aspirin, to thin the blood a little, and perhaps limit further damage. This will not alleviate the pain, but may do some good in the long run. If you have oxygen available, have the patient inhale it at a rate of 2–3 liters per minute (per the machine’s gauge). The pain of a heart attack is partly due to inadequate oxygen within the heart muscle, somewhat like leg pain in a runner, and improving oxygenation may lessen the discomfort. Assuming you don’t have oxygen available, have the patient lie in the bed with his upper body propped up on several pillows. This decreases the work of breathing compared to lying flat, with less demand on the cardiac muscle. Next, give nitro. Nitroglycerin lessens heart pain by opening up the coronary circulation, thus delivering more oxygen to the heart. Nitroglycerin sublingual (dissolved under the tongue) offers very quick but short-term relief; nitroglycerin paste, patches, or delayed release capsules offer longer-term relief, but are slower to take effect.
Medically speaking, this is about all you can do – but still it’s not all you can do. Hold the patient’s hand or rub their neck, if this seems to comfort them. Offer a cool washcloth if they are sweating. Allow a calm, supportive family member to assist you. Keep disturbing or anxious relatives out of the room. Offer to pray with the patient, if this seems appropriate. Offer fluids unless the patient is vomiting. Two reasons fluids are withheld in the hospital are that the patient is getting an I.V. anyway, and that a surgical procedure may be around the corner, with associated anesthesia and risk of vomiting. Your post-Armageddon patient is not going to undergo a heart bypass or stenting, and does not need to suffer dehydration on top of a heart attack. Be careful, though, if the patient is short of breath, as excess fluids may worsen a case of congestive heart failure.
Now, whatever you’ve done with the equipment at hand, don’t blame yourself if the patient dies. We are simply not in control of everything. You did not cause the patient’s heart attack and you’ve done what you can to help.
Your next patient is a 45-year-old woman, complaining of chest pain as well, but who doesn’t appear ill. Chest pain in a person under about 50 years of age is more likely related to the lungs, ribs, or digestion than to the heart. In an asthma patient, when the lungs are tight and the patient is short of breath or wheezing, opening the airways (with an inhaler or steroids) may do more to relieve pain than any pain reliever. If the patient is breathing normally but complains of pain on inspiration, this is usually pleurisy (inflammation of the lining of the lungs) or rib-cage pain. Either way, anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen, naproxen, or even aspirin is helpful. (Remember, though, that if you’re wrong and the pain is coming from the stomach, these drugs may aggravate the problem.) In our index case, there is definite tenderness when you palpate along the rib margins. The heart and lungs cause pain, not tenderness. If rib tenderness is present, you can be fairly confident the problem is musculoskeletal, that is, not serious, and again an anti-inflammatory should help relieve the discomfort. Heat or ice (and not wearing an underwire bra) often help as well.
Next in line is your 30-year-old nephew who works hard and parties harder. His chest is hurting, too, sort of burning, and you can see he’s hung-over. Home-brew will be available even in the worst of times. Chest pain due to acid reflux (often aggravated by alcohol or anti-inflammatory medications) requires a different approach altogether. Pain medication is not the answer. Decreasing the amount of stomach acid refluxing into the esophagus will alleviate this pain. Baking soda and liquid antacids offer almost immediate relief, which is a diagnostic test in itself. Any of the OTC antacid reducers (Pepcid, Tagamet, Zantac, Axid, Prilosec, Prevacid) will afford longer-term acid suppression. Since these medications will not be available forever, avoiding heartburn triggers is only sensible (NSAIDs, alcohol, tobacco, spicy food, fried or fatty food, citrus fruits, tomato products, chocolate, caffeine – yes, avoid all the good stuff).
At first your 40-year-old cousin thought the pain was in her right lung, but now it seems focused in the upper abdomen, toward the right. She’s pretty sure it came on after eating half a jar of peanut butter. The pain is dull to sharp, mostly aching, but with cramps coming in waves, with intermittent nausea. This type of pain is typical of gut pain, probably stemming from gallbladder irritation. With gut pain, narcotics may help, but NSAIDS (anti-inflammatory drugs) should be avoided. Sleep, relaxation, a hot bath, and abstaining from eating also offer partial relief. These same measures help individuals with colitis, kidney stones, kidney infection, diverticulitis, and other intra-abdominal irritations.
Very light massage is a technique that helps gut pain by distracting the mind from the deeper pain. This is part of the basis for the efficacy of effleurage, a TENS unit (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation unit), and even a hot shower. Just as an Internet connection can only carry so much information at once, the human nervous system can only process so much neural input at one time. The heat of a hot shower takes at least several minutes to penetrate sore muscles, but partial relief begins the moment the skin is stimulated. Laboring women sometimes massage their own bellies to lessen the deep pain. Anyone can experiment with this superficial massage technique, which works not only for gut pain, but other deep pains as well. Light oil massage works similarly.
Deep massage is best described and taught by a professional masseuse, which I am not. But even an untrained friend can give a good backrub that relieves the tensions of the day. I’ve had many patients obtain as much relief from a professional massage as from medication or physical therapy. The relief may be short-lived, and the massage may need to be repeated in a day or two, but this natural remedy is used worldwide for pain relief. In fact, in countries where there isn’t a drugstore on every corner, touch therapy is the primary mode of pain relief.
Doing anything at all is nearly always better than doing nothing. Placebos, which have no physical basis for helping, still do so about a third of the time. Hope is a natural narcotic, and people will try a multitude of peculiar and likely ineffective therapies on the basis of hope alone. This is also how so many crackpot therapies work their way into the health care field. Anything, even a sugar pill, will help somebody. Part of the benefit is mind over matter; part is giving your body time to heal on its own. Many patients who think an antibiotic cured them overnight were simply going to be better by the next day anyway. Applying cool cabbage leaves to tender, engorged breasts is purported to relieve the discomfort, but perhaps grape leaves, lettuce leaves, or a cool wash cloth would accomplish as much. Still, applying cabbage leaves lies in the realm of “doing no harm,” plus it gives the mother something active to do. People prefer to be in charge of their own bodies.
As a physician I struggle with the need to be honest with my patients versus the desire not to deprive them of the placebo effect. Modern medicine prides itself on “truth.” But for anyone who believes in a certain therapy, even one proven by medical science to be ineffective, for that individual the relief is real. After an Armageddon event, the placebo effect may be a doctor’s strongest ally. A placebo may be a pill, a procedure, an activity, or a dressing. Whatever you do, choose your placebos wisely and first, do no harm.
Natural remedies also include biologically active chemicals such as opium and salicin (from which aspirin is derived). Through the years, the pharmaceutical industry has developed many refinements, but these two are the original basis of all narcotics and anti-inflammatory medications, including codeine, morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, ibuprofen, and naproxen. When supplies of pharmaceutical pain relievers run out, healers will need to resort to the original, naturally-available painkillers.
White willow bark contains the natural pain-killer salicin. For a full discussion, see the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMM) website, which includes details of dosing, drug interactions, side-effects, and recipes for willow bark preparations made from commercially available supplies. Of course, stockpiles of willow bark will run out as quickly as stockpiles of aspirin, and it makes more sense to learn to recognize the tree, and either locate it within your community or plant your own. Other types of willow may also be effective.
|Willow Bark Tea Recipe (from UMM)
Boil 1–2 teaspoons of (commercially-available) dried
white willow bark in 8 ounces of water
Simmer 10–15 minutes and let steep for half an hour.
Drink one cup 3–4 times daily as needed.
Narcotics are the strongest pain relievers and will be the hardest for preppers to come by. Doctors are extremely unlikely to prescribe enough to stockpile and so, aside from learning to prepare your own, are there any alternatives?
Tramadol is a prescription painkiller, nearly as strong as codeine or hydrocodone, at least in the narcotic-naïve patient. People who get a “high” on narcotics are not fond of this drug. Whereas a few years ago it was quite expensive, now the cost is on a par with ibuprofen. Because it is less likely to be addicting, doctors are happy to use it more freely for many conditions ranging from headaches and stiff necks to sciatica and broken bones. If you have a good relationship with your doctor, you may be able to obtain a small supply, which you should plan on reserving for serious pain. The normal dose is 50–100 mg every 4 to 6 hours. (Note: This paragraph was written in 2011, before the change in approach to pain medicine nationwide. As of 2017 it is much less likely your doctor will give you even a small supply of tramadol unless you have a current need.)
Secondly, the combination of Tylenol plus an anti-inflammatory is nearly as strong as the narcotics hydrocodone or codeine, and in many patients, works as well or even better. As long as a patient can tolerate the ingredients separately, they are well-tolerated in combination. With 500-count bottles of Tylenol, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium readily available over the counter at minimal cost, anyone can lay in a good supply for future use.
Of course, anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are not tolerated by every patient. Any NSAID may cause stomach discomfort or even an ulcer with prolonged use. They should always be taken with food to minimize contact with the stomach lining. Some patients are able to tolerate an NSAID if they take an acid-lowering drug (such as Pepcid, Zantac, Prilosec, or Prevacid). Allergies to NSAIDs are not uncommon, and sensitive individuals may develop hives or wheezing.
For musculoskeletal pain (strains, sprains, fractures, injuries), the NSAIDs, narcotics, and Tylenol are useful, but again, don’t limit yourself to thinking of pills as the only way to alleviate pain. Rest, ice (or heat), splinting, wrapping, and taping are all measures that decrease pain by lessening the stress on the affected body part.
Again, the main point is to get beyond thinking that pain pills are the answer to pain. Yes, they have their place, when the pain is disabling and nothing else works. But overall, especially with the supply of narcotics severely limited, do what you can to avoid them, and save the “big guns” for situations that truly warrant their use.
Checklist – items to include in your medical supplies:
|Tylenol and OTC NSAIDs – ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and aspirin|
|Prescription tramadol, narcotics, muscle relaxers, sleep aids, antidepressants, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers|
|Oxygen tank or concentrator; extra tubing|
|Hot water bottle or reheatable rice bag|
|Athletic tape; Coban; elastic wraps; ankle, wrist, finger, and hand splints; slings|
|OTC Prilosec, Prevacid, Pepcid, Zantac (or generics); liquid Maalox; baking soda|
|Oil of clove for dental (nerve) pain|
|Actions to take:|
|Learn about using willow bark at the University of Maryland Medical Center Web site (at http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/willow-bark-000281.htm); also, locate a local source of willow bark or plant your own trees.|
|Study up on massage and effleurage techniques|
|Download a pain scale you find useful|
 University of Maryland Medical Center: http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/willow-bark-000281.htm
*originally written as “table below”.