Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that many patients are being told by their other treating “headache doctors” that they shouldn’t consider surgery for their problem because their headaches are “not bad enough”. Patients are often so struck by these remarks that many wonder whether this statement represents actual medical fact and repeat it to me as if it were empirically true. They then ask me if I agree with that concept. My answer is always the same, “The only person who can say whether the pain you’re having is too much, is YOU.”
Pain by definition is a subjective experience. There is no objective way to measure it such as with a blood test or an MRI. This fact represents one of the biggest challenges in treating people with pain. Moreover, what I’ve gleaned is that it’s not only the actual episodes of pain that often constitute the greatest burden to people. Many times it is the constant lifestyle adjustments and manipulations often required to stave off the onset of pain that are the most difficult for people to manage. Patients often have to avoid social situations they’d like to be in, avoid foods they love to eat, and avoid activities they used to love participating in. To add insult to injury, I’ve also been informed by patients that their other “headache doctors” told them that they would terminate them as patients if they undergo surgical decompression.
I find such statements quite sad because they often leave patients very conflicted perhaps due to the fact that this other doctor has provided some measure of relief that they are afraid they will lose if they pursue other options. It also goes against my general opinion of how chronic headache pain (and all chronic pain for that matter) should be managed. I believe that a multi-modality approach that yields the best results. Just like in breast cancer treatment during which a patient often has surgery to remove the cancer with a breast surgeon, chemotherapy/hormone therapy with a medical oncologist and radiation treatment with a radiation oncologist. Only when these physicians work together do patients derive the optimal benefit.
Who then is anyone else to say how much any individual person should suffer? I believe that the role of the physician in these cases should be to establish a diagnosis if possible and formulate a treatment plan to address the pathology in question if possible often in combination with other clinicians. The physician should then educate the patient about his/her diagnosis and the possible treatment options. Patients must then decide for themselves based upon an evaluation of the potential risks and benefits of the proposed treatments which treatment options are best for them. The take home message - don’t let anyone else make a value judgment for you. They can’t.