by Carolyn Noel, PAINS Webmaster

the-painful-truthAs a person who lives with pain, I found reading The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us to be a surprisingly emotional experience. Right from the introduction where Dr. Webster shared his purpose for writing the book, his compassion for people like me jumped off of the page and I found myself tearing up.

For many years, I have said that we need to put a face on pain – it can affect anyone and, based on the statistics, eventually all of us will be affected by pain in one way or another. As Webster said, “Literally no one can escape pain’s effects.”

The stigma surrounding pain patients is strongly embedded in our society and the only way that I can see to combat it is to put a human face on the problem. Dr. Webster does this brilliantly in Part One of the book by sharing some stories of his patients.

By starting at the beginning of their story—not the beginning of the pain—and sharing so much of what the person’s life was like before pain, he has truly succeeded in putting a face on pain and was able to “call forth the emotions of both hope and unrest—hope because there is much that people in pain can do right now to feel better, unrest because we can’t settle for the status quo.”

Webster describes the book not as a self-help book but as a helpful book. Readers can expect to be drawn into the lives of the patients, caregivers and even gain insight through the eyes of the physician. Whether you are a person living with pain, a caregiver or a healthcare provider, you will come away from this book with a greater understanding of the big picture.

Living with pain, I often feel like others cannot possibly understand what it’s like to walk a day in my shoes, but I believe that this book goes a long way to help depict the impact that pain has on the lives of the patient and their caregivers and loved ones. However, people who live with pain will also get a glimpse into the heart of a truly compassionate doctor who wants to help his patients despite his fears of government scrutiny.

One of the biggest challenges that people living with pain face is finding such a person. A person in pain needs a doctor who genuinely cares, who sees a person and not just a patient, a cause and not just a case. Then a relationship—one that’s professional and yet profoundly human—may be established to bring about improvement in the patient’s well-being. (emphasis added)

Profoundly human…..

So many times pain patients feel like a burden, a hindrance or just another difficult case. It’s easy for us to become jaded by all of the disappointments in the journey to find help for our pain and lose sight that there are many healthcare providers out there who are truly compassionate and are in this field because they want to help.

Thank you, Dr. Webster, for this important reminder.

He doesn’t stop there at just sharing the stories – but shares the different ways that a multi-modal approach to pain care—toward treating the whole person (as he put it, bio-psycho-social-spiritual) can help people living with pain get at least a piece of their lives back and hang on to hope.

After so many years treating pain patients, I’m sure that Dr. Webster could have found dozens of success stories to share–but–that would not be reality. He shares the “painful truth” that some will commit suicide rather than face endless years in pain, marriages will fail, access to necessary care will be limited and, yes, some will become addicted and abuse their medication. These parts were difficult for me to read because part of the stigma we face as pain patients is that we’re all addicts, doctor-shoppers, etc.–all of the horrible labels placed on us by ignorance.

Part Two of the book moves the focus from the individual to society to discuss “the large-scale problems that must be solved if we’re going to make more progress against pain.”

It begins with a very personal look into the life of Dr. Webster himself and the fear that healthcare providers face from the DEA. He makes an excellent point that “no doctor is punished for mistaking a pain patient for a drug abuser and refusing to prescribe pain medications. It’s easier to err on the side of safety.” Well-meaning efforts to address the very real problems of drug abuse and addiction have the unfortunate result of impacting legitimate patients (and health care providers) simply looking to find an effective treatment for this disease.

Webster refers to this as “the chilling effect.”

It’s changing the way some physicians practice medicine and what treatments they recommend. It’s introducing suspicion and misunderstanding into the patient-physician relationship. It’s making it more difficult for people holding opioid prescriptions to get those prescriptions filled.

He even asks if doctors will soon ask themselves if it’s worth it to treat pain patients.

The “chilling effect” isn’t just something seen in the medical community. Dr. Webster asked some tough questions like:

  • Why do the deaths of people who overdose on opioids receive so much more attention than the deaths of those who couldn’t stand the pain without their opioid treatment?
  • Why is the financial motivation of pharmaceutical companies scrutinized while the financial motivations of medical bill payers are overlooked?
  • Has our society made any progress in relieving pain?
  • Even as our scientific understanding of pain and how to relieve it continues to improve, are we failing to make progress on delivering care to those who need it when they need it?

One painful fact that is often overlooked–50 percent of all people with chronic pain consider suicide at some point.

Dr. Webster offers three areas that need to change that “stand out above all others.”

We need to…
  • Ramp up research efforts to discover better therapies for pain
  • Improve and extend insurance coverage so that people in pain can get the care that’s available
  • Treat all people in pain with dignity and respect

I hope that anyone taking time to read this will see the need to not just read this book, but to do everything they can to share it with others (social media, write a blog, write a review)—and—help to shed light on this widespread problem in our society.

For more information, visit A documentary on the book will air in the Fall.