New Breakthroughs in Chronic Pain

Heath Haug served for 22 years in the Army, Marine Corps and National Guard, followed by two decades as a cop. “I beat my body up,” he says. “My back, feet, my knee. It takes a toll.”

But Haug, 54, of Christiansburg, Virginia, has found relief through the Salem Veterans Affairs Health Care System’s (VAHCS) innovative Prevail Center for Chronic Pain. The program gives veterans basic coping strategies through an online or face-to-face “pain school,” after which they meet for an hour with a caregiving team — made up of a psychologist, a pharmacist, a dietitian, a physical therapist and a physician specializing in pain — that creates a personalized, six-month treatment plan focused on healthy eating, exercise, spirituality and reducing stress.

Haug has lost 12 pounds by eating more produce and less packaged food. He’ll soon start cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia and has received injections to ease arthritis in his spine. Soon he hopes to get back to hiking with his wife. “The pain’s going to be there,” he says. “I’m learning ways to minimize it to lead a normal life.

”Taking control of pain

Haug is among Prevail’s first group of 280 participants, who have reported that their pain is no longer controlling their life, says clinical psychologist Rena Courtney, director and creator of Prevail.

“We start by asking, ‘If you were in less pain, what would you be doing more of?’ We get answers like ‘I’d be playing with the grandkids,’ or ‘I’d be hunting or fishing,’ ” Courtney says. “We tell them that’s how we’re going to know if we’re successful — if you’re doing more of that in six months.”

Chronic pain affects approximately 37.8 million midlife and older Americans, and nearly a third have high-impact pain that makes daily life difficult. In 2019, the Department of Veterans Affairs called on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to study the potential of the whole health care model that Courtney and others at the VA are using to address chronic pain.

Prevail is offered only at the Salem VAHCS; Courtney suggests civilians with chronic pain look for pain programs affiliated with medical schools or ask their doctor for referrals for help with diet, exercise, stress, sleep and mental health. The VA’s free, online Personal Health Inventory can help you get started.

What matters is taking a holistic approach to pain management, Courtney says — one that treats the biological and emotional aspects.

“When I ask, ‘What happens to your pain when you’re stressed,’ every single person says it gets worse,” she says. “If pain were just biological, that wouldn’t matter.”

To learn more about advancements in the treatment of chronic pain, from AARP, CLICK HERE.