Are Pain Patients Failed By “Western Medicine?”

A very common statement in the chronic illness community is “Western medicine has failed me”. It’s a very tempting sentiment, and it is usually encouraged by individuals and businesses offering alternative therapies. When emotions run high, it is tempting to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Have I been failed by “Western medicine”? Let me think about that one a bit. First of all, I did not die in childbirth (my own birth of course, since I am childless), so I’d count that as a win. I also did not die or become crippled from polio or any of the other childhood diseases, so more winning on that front. My left knee contains a perfectly reconstructed ACL made from the tendon of my quad muscle, which I use in my day-to-day activities and sports. Overall, medical science had been good to me. Ringworm? Boom! Antifungal cream. Strep throat? Boom! Antibiotics. But a mysterious intractable headache condition? That was the end of the easy solutions for me.

The medical system in the US is not great for dealing with chronic problems. Arguably, allopathic medicine as a whole is not that great for dealing with chronic pain. They are surprisingly good at saving your live, but not always that great at ensuring that the life they save is one you would want to live. All this being said, I still think that medical science, the type often referred to as “western medicine”, is the most reliable and powerful tool we have at our disposal for solving these problems. Science is about questioning and testing, finding answers, and then questioning and testing for even better answers in a never-ending cycle. The question we need to ask is: Why isn’t this huge powerful machine known as “medical science” working for us?


I think of these chronic pain conditions as “sniper” conditions. They start out of nowhere and just snatch you out of your normal life. You may struggle for a while, stumbling around trying to make everything work, trying to keep your job and personal life together. But pain at this level does not leave room for much else. People in this situation can generally end up losing their job. Chronic pain can change your personality, make you short tempered and reclusive, and this can cost you relationships.  So, we often just withdraw from society, with an illness that is often invisible, and without a support network. We are a small enough population to be considered acceptable collateral damage, and the nature of our diseases ensures that we go out with a whimper and not with a roar. The big corporate machine that is the American healthcare system is not working for us because it has little incentive to and because we have very few advocating for us.

A good percentage of medical professionals have not even heard of whatever rare disorder is in question, and if they have at least heard of the name, they do not really know much about it. Cluster headache? Isn’t that like migraine? CRPS? Isn’t that who you call if you think a kid is being mistreated? And then some do not even believe it is a real disorder, like many attitudes towards fibromyalgia. None of these conditions are observable on any type of lab test.  It does not help that as a society, we have some very harsh societal attitudes towards pain patients and access to medications due to the opioid epidemic.

Our cultural attitudes towards mind altering drugs may also be hindering progress here in my opinion. Ketamine appears to be highly effective for treating refractory pain conditions. In fact, when it fails, it seems to fail because the individual had difficulty tolerating the experience, not necessarily because it was not effective at the task at hand. But every advertisement I have seen online for these infusion centers has a handful of snide remarks in the comment section referring to “horse tranquilizer”. We have it built into our cultural DNA that being in an altered state is somehow the territory of degenerates and ruffians. These cultural attitudes help maintain the laws that govern the scheduling of these substances.

To circle back, have I been failed by Western medicine? Yes, I have. But I’m just one in a long line of disillusioned folks here, nothing special. The doctors who would have wanted to help me were failed too, because current laws limit their access to the tools that could have helped me. My government failed me too, because of the drug policy that limits research and awareness of these substances. I am sure at some point I have been delivered a cold pizza too, and the ice cream machine at McDonalds is broken way too often for there not to be some sort of conspiracy there. But I am taking care of myself, and I am not waiting for some miraculous rescue because it’s just not coming. I am functioning fine with a dosing schedule and I maintain a job and family life. I couldn’t rely on anyone else to rescue me, so I had to do it myself.

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