How Many Pain Doctors Does It Take?

Individuals living with chronic pain conditions often see multiple physicians and clinicians. 

In a spring 2019 online PPM poll, we asked: How many doctors are you seeing to manage your chronic pain condition. 225 online readers answered:

  • 37% - 3 or more doctors: my primary care provider and specialists
  • 24% - 2 doctors: my primary care provider and a specialist
  • 24% - 1 doctor: just my primary care provider
  • 16% - 1 doctor: just a specialist for my specific condition

An adequate care team may include a primary care doctor, specialists, and psychotherapist. (Source: 123RF)

The results attest to the fact that individuals living with chronic pain often experience multiple overlapping conditions, called comorbidities; they may also experience anxiety, depression, and/or insomnia. As a result, proper care requires multiple clinicians with unique specialties to address the individual's needs. Pain management may range from primary care, where a doctor can manage the overall treatment plan and serve as the main contact for the care team; to a physical therapist who can help the individual improve any decreased mobility or function as a result of the condition; to a pain psychologist who can help the individual work through their experience.

Specialists such as rheumatologists for inflammatory conditions, orthopedists for musculoskeletal conditions, and interventional doctors for underlying nerve or spine conditions may be involved in a patient's overall care plan as well. (Of note, in a separate poll, 27% of our online readers - as of June 12, 2019 - say they see a psychotherapist to help manage their chronic pain condition and related symptoms.) 

Clinicians largely agree with the need for multimodal care, however, pain specialists are often the last point of care for a pain patient in need as it can take many months, or even years, to obtain an accurate diagnosis. In a separate poll, we asked our healthcare provider readers, On average, how many doctors have your patients seen before they get to your specialty and/or pain practice? They answered:

  • 57% - 5 or more doctors (my practice is often their last stop after a long line of doctors)
  • 39% - 2 to 4 doctors
  • 4% - 0 to 1 doctors (my practice/clinic is often their first point of care)

"No one specialist can really treat pain alone," says Dmitry M. Arbuck, MD, president and medical director of the Indiana Polyclinic in Indianapolis, a pain management clinic, and a PPM editorial advisor. He views effective pain medicine as a spectrum of services, with psychological treatment on one end and interventional pain management on the other. In between, patients should have access to a combination of pharmacological and rehabilitative services from different doctors and other healthcare providers.

If you have not yet visited a pain management clinic or group practice, where a team of doctors can work with you collaboratively, here's what to expect, including what a "pain specialist" means.

Updated on: 06/12/19
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