November 23, 2020

What is a pain specialist and when do I need to see one?

Reviewed by the Transitional Pain Service team at the Toronto General Hospital
The contents of this website are for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Living with a painful condition can take a toll on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Negative feelings such as anger, anxiety and depression can take over and increase your body's sensitivity to pain. Everything else may begin to fall on the wayside as you spend your days focused on managing your pain.

Getting help from your primary care physician is the first step to take. This is because you have an established relationship with the doctor who is already familiar with your history. If you've already done this and the treatment is not working even if you have given it a considerable amount of time to work, then you might want to consult with a pain specialist.

Why you need to see a pain specialist
If you feel that your current treatment plan is not working, you may want to reach out to a pain specialist so you can try a different approach to pain management. Since the medical field is growing at a rapid pace, it is important to consult with a pain specialist who has an in-depth knowledge of the field and remains up-to-date with these changes.

A pain specialist is a doctor who specializes in the evaluation, treatment, and prevention of pain. These specialists assist primary care doctors and other healthcare professionals by prescribing medication, recommending rehabilitation services, and performing procedures to treat pain.

You should definitely see a pain specialist if you have any of the following conditions:
  • If pain prevents you from doing your normal, day-to-day activities
  • If natural treatments and over-the-counter medication do not provide relief
  • If the treatment plan prescribed by your primary care doctor is not working
  • If your pain is chronic and has lasted for more than three months
  • If are experiencing intolerable levels of pain
Pain management by specialty
If you are thinking of seeing a pain specialist, you need to know the medical background of the doctor you will be consulting. A true pain specialist will spend most of their time treating people with chronic pain instead of treating for a variety of illnesses. Pain specialists can come from different disciplines and have specialized training in pain management. Here are some of the pain specialists from different disciplines:

  • Anesthesiologist
  • Neurosurgeon
  • Orthopedic surgeon
  • Physiatrist
  • Physical therapist
  • Psychiatrist
  • Rheumatologist
Working with a pain specialist
Pain is not a straightforward matter, which is why there will be many ways that a pain specialist can go about your rehabilitation plan. First, the specialist will diagnose the underlying cause of pain and discuss the treatments available to you. The treatment may include medication, diet changes, weight loss, physical therapy, exercise, yoga, and many more. Most pain management programs have a multidisciplinary approach, so you may be prescribed a medication program, psychological services, physical therapy, and many more under one treatment plan.

If all these treatments have been exhausted and you continue to experience debilitating pain, interventional treatments may be prescribed such as steroid injections, neuromodulation, and spinal cord stimulation.

Because of this multidisciplinary approach, your pain specialist will work with other healthcare professionals (primary care physician, physical therapist, counselor, etc.) to ensure you are getting the best care possible. The specialist can come up with a personalized physical therapy program to help improve your functional capabilities, as well as advise you on how to make coping with pain easier.

Since pain can be an isolating experience, your pain specialist can also help you find a support group full of people who are going through the same thing. Your feelings and emotions will feel validated once you are in the company of people who are also struggling with pain.
What to expect on your first visit
On your first visit, the pain specialist will get to know you. Make sure to bring all the documents that the pain specialist will need such as your pain journal (if you have one), the prescription you are currently taking, test results, and insurance information. The specialist will review your past and present medical history, do a physical exam, and conduct a series of tests. Although not required, you may want to bring a friend or a family member during your first visit. A fresh set of eyes and ears can prove to be helpful during the interview, and a comforting, familiar presence can also help you deal with the anxiety that comes with meeting a new doctor.

Every person experiences pain differently, and different treatments will have varying degrees of effectiveness for each person. Since there are many options to explore, you may need to go through a trial-and-error process in order for the pain specialist to determine the best treatment for you. It is worth remembering that a quick fix is not the goal here, and it may take some time before the pain goes away. But while you get to that point, the pain specialist will help you restore your function and improve the quality of your life. During the entire process, the pain specialist will also communicate your progress to your referring doctor or primary care physician.
Benefits of seeing a pain specialist
A pain specialist will have extensive experience and training in pain management, as well as access to specialty equipment and treatment options that are normally not available to a general physician. The specialist will work with you every step of the way to create an individualized treatment plan with the goal of either alleviating the pain or making it more tolerable so that you can regain your function and faculties. Living with chronic illness does not have to be a full-time job, and with the help of a pain specialist, you can still get to enjoy and live a happy life.