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Program Teaches Chronic Pain Sufferers To Control Their Symptoms

Audio

Aired 1/21/10

Surveys show tens of millions of Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain. It's one of the main reasons why people visit a doctor.

Chef Palma Bellinghieri chops fresh vegetables for a tabouli salad. She believes eating the right foods can help reduce chronic pain.
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Above: Chef Palma Bellinghieri chops fresh vegetables for a tabouli salad. She believes eating the right foods can help reduce chronic pain.

Dr. Tomer Anbar directs the Scripps Chronic Pain Rehabilitation program. Anbar says standard medical treatments like narcotics and surgery aren’t the most effective way to treat chronic pain.
Enlarge this image

Above: Dr. Tomer Anbar directs the Scripps Chronic Pain Rehabilitation program. Anbar says standard medical treatments like narcotics and surgery aren’t the most effective way to treat chronic pain.

— Surveys show tens of millions of Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain. It's one of the main reasons why people visit a doctor.

Those who have chronic pain often get little relief from standard medical therapies. One treatment program in San Diego offers a unique approach that includes counseling, bio-feedback and cooking classes. There's scientific evidence that suggests what you eat can make a big difference in reducing chronic pain.

We're in a cooking class at the Scripps Chronic Pain Rehabilitation program. Chef Palma Bellinghieri prepares ingredients for a breakfast parfait.

"So we're gonna combine the sunflower seeds, the pumpkin seeds and the flax seeds," Bellinghieri says. "And then we're gonna put that on top of our favorite non-fat yogurt."

Bellinghieri says if people want a little sweetener, they should choose non-refined sugar, like agave nectar or honey.

"In the contrary, sugar is one of the things that cause the most inflammation, next to processed foods, nitrates, MSG, hydrogenated oils," Bellinghieri points out. "We have to be very careful, because all those things inflame our body, and then we have an increase of pain."

Bellinghieri says the proper anti-inflammatory diet is plant-based. People who are trying to reduce chronic pain should eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and lean protein like beans.

Later on in a bio-feedback class, patients will learn how to control some physiological conditions in their body. For example, with the aid of an electronic monitor, patients can reduce the electrical activity in their muscles. This method can help relieve back spasms.

Dr. Tomer Anbar directs the Scripps Chronic Pain Rehabilitation program.

"Somebody who has chronic pain, they've already gone through the mill," Anbar says. "You see, they've gone through all the conservative treatments. They might have already gone through multiple surgeries, they've had the physical therapy, they've had all the treatments. It has not worked. So what is required is a very different approach."

Dr. Anbar says this different approach is focused on pain rehabilitation.

"The best way to treat a person is help them become an expert in understanding the mechanisms that contribute to their symptoms, so you're giving them the tools as part of their therapy, to heal themselves," Anbar argues.

Vidal Garcia is one of the patients in the Scripps program. A few years ago, he ruptured some discs in his back when he was lifting boxes at work.

He suffered through two surgeries and took countless painkillers, but the pain never really went away.

"You can't do anything," Garcia recalls. "I mean, the pain is so intense, you get tears in your eyes. I didn't know what depressed was, till then. It was just a nasty place to be, it was just awful."

When Garcia came to the Scripps program, he didn't expect much.

"You know, the first two or three days, I said, what am I doing here? They're not going to fix me," Garcia says. "Then, weeks went by, all the talking to the counselors here. You talk to them about anything. You don't know what a relief just to get all that out. "

Garcia says after a few more weeks, he lost weight, and learned some techniques to minimize his pain. He also cut way down on his pain medications.

There are only a few multidisciplinary programs like this in California, and they're not cheap. Depending on what the patient requires, it can cost more than $30,000 for 12 weeks of therapy.

Still, Program Director Anbar says it's a lot cheaper than multiple surgeries, and can provide more long-lasting relief.

"If we're interested in improving the current epidemic of chronic pain, this is the only way to do it," Anbar insists.

The American Pain Foundation says that when you factor in lost productivity, and the cost of conventional treatment, the annual price tag for chronic pain tops $100 billion.

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