Pain, part 2: Options for Treating Pain

Anesthetic (e.g. Novocain):  This is a very good option for when you need to block an extraordinary amount of pain in a very specific area for a short period of time (e.g. dental work).  However, as someone who received nerve damage from surgery that exactly mimics the effects of local anesthetic, I can tell you that it is not a long term solution.  Feeling nothing is actually very weird, and makes it easy to injure yourself.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (e.g. ibuprofen):  These are great for occasional use, and have their place for long term pain caused by inflammation (e.g. arthritis).  But they carry some heavy risks for long term use.  One, inflammation is often a helpful reaction.  Topical NSAIDs helped my cat’s pain but retarded the growth of blood vessels in the eye which ultimately made the problem worse*.  Suppressing a fever can prolong illnesses.

NSAIDS are also hard on the stomach, which is bad for everyone, but especially bad for someone like me, who has long running stomach problems that interfere with my ability to absorb nutrition.  I completely wrecked my stomach with naproxen the week before surgery.

COX-2 inhibitors are a subclass of NSAIDs that target pain pathways more specifically, while sparing the gastic pathways that cause so many problems.  The problem is they also increase the risk of coronary events, to the point many were taken off the market and others restricted to single use post-surgery.  They’re so out of favor for pain relief that the three different medical professionals I begged for dental pain relief didn’t think to suggest them, even though I have many gastric risk factors and essentially no coronary risk factors.

Even before realizing COX-2 inhibitors might be perfect for me, I was very angry that they had been taken off the market.  The coronary risk was limited to a small subset of patients, of even of those, some might very well choose to live a shorter life in less pain, because pain is depressing.

Non-NSAID analgesics (e.g. tylenol and asprin): You know how new drugs like to advertise themselves as “safer than asprin?”  That’s because asprin is actually pretty dangerous.  Not super dangerous, but dangerous enough it might well be denied FDA approval today.  Asprin is also a blood thinner, which is great for coronary patients but terrible for dental patients because it can melt the blood clot protecting the surgical site, leading to dry socket.  Some descriptions down play dry socket, but it is in fact both extremely painful (because it exposes a nerve to open air), and dangerous (because it leaves the wound open to infection).   Tylenol is the world’s worst way to commit suicide, because there are several days between the point of no return and actual death, and they are extremely painful.

Opioids (e.g. heroin): I’m told these are super fun for some people, but I have had many different kinds over the years (as one dentist after another fucked up trying to fix my mouth), and I hate them.  The milder ones (everything short of percoset) do nothing for me, and the stronger ones (percoset) are so supremely unpleasant I would rather be in pain.  The only exceptions were when I was literally dying of norovirus, and whatever opioid they gave me was apparently integral to me not dying, and when I got dry socket.  And even with dry socket, I only took them to sleep, because they were just so awful. I refused to even get a prescription this time, because they just don’t work for me.

But even for people who find opioids tolerable, they have serious risks.  They depress respiratory function, cause constipation, and reduce mental function.  They’re insanely addictive on a chemical level- which doesn’t mean everyone who takes them once is hooked forever, but does mean that most people who take them will go through an unpleasant withdrawal period, no matter how “legitimate” their reason for use.  People develop tolerance to the pain relief faster than to the negative side effects, and quitting them may leave them in more pain than they were when they started.  For all these reasons, opioids are pretty much exclusively used for acute pain management and terminal patients.  Doctors who stray outside this risk serious sanctions from the DEA and FDA.  Even if I found opioids tolerable, there is absolutely no way I could have safely used them for the months of surgery + recovery I am going through.

And because I’m working my cat into everything: he doesn’t like opioids either.  Even after having four teeth pulled he fought me on taking his medicine, and then he just stood around in a stupor and drooled.

Tricyclic antidepressants: This is a cutting edge use of a very old drug.  I was prescribed topical doxepin by the doctor who did the research proving it was useful for oral pain- and even then, he was researching a different kind of oral pain.  It had some ugly side effects: I fell asleep immediately upon taking it, and couldn’t stand being touched (anywhere) the next day.  It left some numbness that lasted indefinitely- when I ate spicy food I could feel in my throat where the liquid had trickled down.  On the plus side- it left some numbness that lasted indefinitely.  That was a huge improvement over the shooting pain I’d had before.  I eventually stopped because the permanent effects had boosted me to the point it didn’t hurt that much, and the side effects were getting worse, but it was overall a great experience.  If I hadn’t found something better it’s what I’d ask my doctors for now.

Capsacin (aka spicy food): This really only works for dental pain.  When you eat capsacin it activates all your pain receptors at once.  Which hurts a lot, but then you’re good for a couple of hours.

Cannibidiol (i.e. marijuana): This one isn’t as well researched as the others because it’s illegal at the federal level (although, I must stress, legal in my state for both medical and recreational use).  But everything we know about it is awesome.  People tend to use THC and marijuana interchangeably, but that’s not true at all.  Any given strain can very in the amount of THC and CBD, and some strains may not have any THC at all, or the treatment may not activate it.  THC causes a lot of the symptoms traditionally associated with marijuana use, like munchies everything being funny.  CBD causes nerves to stop hurting for no reason, and may do a bunch of other awesome things like reduce inflammation, encourage bone growth, decrease anxiety, fight cancer, and (I can only assume) whiten your teeth while you sleep.  There is essentially no way to kill yourself with it** and there’s no physical dependency.  I used this off and on after all three surgeries, and my use naturally trailed off after each one.  It either doesn’t have any effect on me mentally, or the effect was less than the pain it was stopping.

THC may work synergisticly with CBD.  In my case it makes me sleepy, which is a terrible trait for a recreational drug but an amazing one for convalescent therapy.

A note for dental use in particular:  you are not even allowed to use a straw, so you definitely cannot smoke anything.  The nice people at the medical dispensaries have precisely dosed pills, and if you are lucky, CBD tinctures.  These are meant to be taken sublingually, but if your pain is in your mouth you can apply them to the area and everything stops hurting really really rapidly.  It gave me an amazing sense of control over my pain and enabled me to take more risks, in terms of eating and talking to people, which really sped up my recovery.

I don’t want to get too much on the “yay marijuana” bandwagon, because it’s entirely possible that as its usage becomes more widespread we’ll find out it has some rare but nasty side effects too.  But I do think it’s a travesty it is treated as worse than ibuprofen or alcohol, when it is clearly better.

*I think his infection was also resistant to the first antibiotics they gave him.

**Weirdly, this may be true for humans but not pets.  When I investigated using CBD to treat pain from my cat’s corneal ulcer, I discovered that we are pretty sure there is no amount so high it can kill your pet in one sitting, but chronic use may lead to something resembling serotonin syndrome (aka the reason you have to be so careful when taking MAOI inhibitors).