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'Boot camp' helps chronic pain sufferers cope

  • Story Highlights
  • "Boot camp" focuses on psychological, emotional aspects of life with chronic pain
  • Program is four weeks of group, individual therapies
  • Training includes stress reduction, relaxation, breathing techniques
  • One out of three Americans suffers from chronic pain, says American Pain Society
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By Jennifer Pifer
CNN Medical News
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Gayle Parseghian's life changed while she and her husband were moving furniture into their new ski cabin in November of 2006. She strained her back.

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After attending "boot camp" for her back pain, Gayle Parseghian is back on the slopes.

"There wasn't an 'a-ha' moment," recalls Parseghian, 54, of Toledo, Ohio. "But about two days later, I could hardly walk."

Just putting a little bit of weight on her left foot was excruciating. A visit to her doctor led to a diagnosis: Her back was hyperextended.

For the next year, Parseghian was on "a merry-go-round to find proper care." She went from doctor to doctor, visited a chiropractor and even wore an herbal patch to stop the pain.

But it got worse. What initially started as acute injury-based pain turned into chronic, persistent pain. Sitting was unbearable. Driving a car was out of the question.

Parseghian, a lifelong dancer who was in great shape and taught ballet, was miserable and unable to find relief. "If someone had told me to go stand in the middle of the street, I would have done it."

Parseghian is far from alone. One out of three Americans suffers from chronic pain, according to the American Pain Society. In 2004, the Americans Living with Pain Survey found 72 percent of people with chronic pain have had it for more than three years.

According to an Associated Press analysis of statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the amount of five major painkillers sold at stores rose 90 percent between 1997 and 2005. Video Watch more on the chronic pain "boot camp" »

Sitting in a doctor's office, Parseghian read about a pain "boot camp" at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's Center for Pain Management. At that point, she put the idea of going to the clinic in her back pocket. About a year later, she was at her wits end. "I was so beaten up physically and psychologically, I said 'OK, it's time for me to look into this.' "

Dr. Steven Stanos was one of the first people Parseghian met at the center. As medical director, Stanos is part of a team that includes doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists that works with each patient who comes in for treatment.

"We're trying to teach patients new techniques and other ways to manage their pain," says Stanos. The key word: manage.

A cure is not promised. The goal of the program is to teach patients how to live with the pain. "We show them that they can function despite the pain," says Stanos.

Health Library

  • MayoClinic.com: Reclaiming your life in spite of chronic pain

It is not easy: For four weeks, eight hours a day patients participate in group and individual therapies. "The first week of the program is really difficult for a lot of patients," said Stanos. "They're not used to being up even eight hours a day."

Mornings starts with a trip to the gym: Stretching followed by a walk on the track or treadmill. Weight training and water aerobics are also part of the regiment. They also learn strategies to help with everyday activities. For example, resting a foot on a lower cabinet while rinsing vegetables at the kitchen sink helps take pressure off the back.

The "boot camp" also addresses the psychological and emotional aspects of pain. "Living in pain and having your life so altered, psychologically, that's huge," says Parseghian.

"People become depressed and anxious." Since stress can often aggravate chronic pain, patients learn relaxation techniques including the Feldenkrais method, a breathing technique that helps correct poor posture and muscle habits. "Once they finish the program," Stanos said, patients report that the breathing exercise "helps them the most."

More than 75 percent of patients reported their pain was "better" after the program, according to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. But the boot camp isn't cheap. It costs about $20,000 for the four-week program. Insurance usually covers part of it, Stanos said.

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So is it worth the investment? Parseghian thinks so. She completed the program nearly three months ago and said feels considerably better. She has learned how to pace herself. "I have to exercise good judgment," she said. Her dance regimen isn't like it once was, but she did recently start skiing again.

"You can't live your life in a closet," she said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Jennifer Pifer is a senior producer with CNN Medical News. Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.

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