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  • In 2011, at least 100 million adult Americans have common chronic pain conditions, a conservative estimate because it does not include acute pain or children.

    ~ Relieving Pain in America, The National Academies Press, Washington DC. 2011.

    What an astounding statistic! About half of all American adults suffer from chronic pain conditions. That's more than suffer from heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes combined. We're in agony, it seems. No wonder we see so many ads for pain relievers on TV.

    Nature did not design our bodies to live in pain. Our natural state is health. What has caused so many of us to experience pain on a daily basis?

    What kinds of pain are we talking about? The report ranks the most common forms: severe low back pain (28.1%), knee pain (19.5%), headache or migraine (16.1%), neck pain (15.1%), shoulder pain (9.0%), finger pain (7.6%), and hip pain (7.1%). Most sufferers report experiencing more than one kind of pain. Perhaps because they have underlying pathologies that affect multiple organs or physiological systems.

    Most of the afflicted take something for it. Fifteen million patients in the US are prescribed painkillers. Many more get analgesics over the counter, from the black market, or drink alcohol. Some do all of the above. Yet half of all respondents to a 2006 survey felt they had little or no control over their pain. What does that mean?

    To me, it simply means that painkillers don't treat disease and that the causes of many diseases are not being addressed. More to the point, diseases are not being prevented.

    Then there are those who use pain relievers nonmedically (to get high). Many of them start in high school or even earlier, cadging their adult relatives' pills or from friends who do. Their drugs of choice are synthetic opioids like Vicodin (hydrocodone), which are highly addictive.

    Even if the war on drugs managed to eliminate illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine completely (fuggedaboudit), we would still have painkiller addiction on a massive scale, because most of those drugs are legally prescribed, then abused or diverted for recreational use.

    People who self-medicate with painkillers are often in real pain, and not just looking for kicks. If not physical, their pain is psychic. And they are in the same bind that "legitimate" users are: even if they find ways to transcend or cure their pain, their addiction doesn't go away too. For some, their addiction requires that the pain stick around, else they couldn't justify what they are doing to score pills.

    We self-medicate because we are stuck in a relationship or a job or because we don't have one to be stuck in. Or, we see our lives passing without the promise of fulfillment, not even understanding what fulfillment would mean. We see people victimized by corruption, greed, and unaccountable power and we feel their pain. We see entire species winking out, possibly even our own. And on and on.

    This situation is tragic in so many respects. There just shouldn't be so much pain out there or in here, and our social institutions ought to be doing more to root out its causes.

    Still, asking society to do something, while important, can be a cop-out. Each of us has the capacity to choose how and when we act. While you might not be able to stop the pain that you or others feel, you can control how you perceive and react to it.

    First feel the pain. Turn it over in your mind, savor it even. Learn where it comes from and what triggers it. Try to make it come and go. Then tell it to take a hike; you have better things to think about.

    Your pills are there to enslave you. Unless you are managing acute organic pain, throw them away.
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