My Time at the Mayo Clinic Pain Rehabilitation Center

With years of chronic pain under his belt, the author found refuge, support, and relief in Rochester.

A year and a half ago, I packed my suitcase, left my wife and dog, and moved from Des Moines, Iowa, to Rochester, Minnesota, for three weeks to attend the Mayo Clinic Pain Rehabilitation Center’s (PRC) chronic pain program. It wasn’t my first pain rehabilitation rodeo. I knew what to expect. I attended the same program at Mayo in 2012 after nerve damage from a 2009 surgery.

The 2018 program was a reset for me – a chance to relearn and practice what I learned in 2012 after a 2013 fall led to a variety of new symptoms and conditions, including widespread fibromyalgia pain, tinnitus, neuropathy, costochondritis, IBS, post-concussion syndrome with 24/7 headache, neuropathy, chronic fatigue, anxiety, and depression.

I joke about going twice to the program. I say I’m a pain school dropout. But the truth is, the program has been key to moving my pain management journey forward.

The Rochester Mayo PRC is one of the first pain rehabilitation programs in the world (having opened in 1974); today, there are similar Mayo PRC centers in Phoenix, Arizona, and Jacksonville, Florida. 

There are other national and state-level pain rehabilitation programs available around the country as well but herein is my experience with the Mayo PRC, including a few pieces of advice for those who may consider attending such a program.

Don’t Expect to Leave Pain-Free

The focus of the Mayo PRC program is on self-managing pain and restoring function. A magical cure is not a promised result. A biopsychosocial approach to pain treatment is taken to address not only the biological or physical aspect of pain but also the emotional, social, and psychological aspects of pain. Participants learn how to deal with the challenges of having chronic pain and how to improve their quality of life. There is an emphasis on self-responsibility.

 

Be Prepared to Stop Using Opioids

Like myself, many of the people who attend the Mayo PRC have tried about everything to get their chronic pain under control, including opioids. However, attendees must agree to taper off narcotic pain medicines in order to join the program.

The Rochester Mayo PRC is one of the first pain rehabilitation programs in the world (having opened in 1974); today, there are similar Mayo PRC centers in Phoenix, Arizona, and Jacksonville, Florida. (Image: iStock)

Plan to be Part of a Larger Group: This is Not 1:1 Therapy

I was one of about 30 participants at the program from all over the United States, as well as from around the world, including Mexico and the United Arab Emirates. It was great to be able to connect with other people just like me – people with chronic pain – and learn from their experiences. Rarely, do I remember talking with each other about symptoms and conditions. Most of our conversations were about getting to know each other as people, not as chronic pain patients, and supporting each other. See also, How to Find Support Groups for Pain.

Not everyone started the program on the same day so there were always people joining and leaving the group. This gave us opportunities throughout the program to say our goodbyes to graduating participants and to welcome new participants. It also allowed us opportunities to both mentor and to be mentored, all while developing friendships.

We were divided into two teams. The teams would spend most of the day apart from each other but would combine for large programs like daily stretching and closing session.

There is No Check In; It’s a Home Away from Home

The Mayo PRC program is outpatient, meaning attendees are responsible for housing and meals during the three-week timeframe. There were a vast variety of local hotels, motels, air B&Bs, and hostels in the Rochester area to choose from. I chose to stay at a hotel a few miles away from the hospital, driving back and forth each day from the hotel. For me, breakfast was available at the hotel, lunch was usually a sandwich from the hospital cafeteria, and dinner was at a restaurant near the hotel.

The Program Takes Place During the Week AND on the Weekends

The program started at 8 am each day and ended at 4:15 pm Monday-Friday. We had to check in before 7:45 am – forcing us to get up and get ready each day. No more spending the day in pajamas. In fact, every hour of the day was planned – which is part of the PRC’s goal of returning participants to regular daily activities. See a sample below:

 

 

Typical PRC Monday-Friday Schedule

8:00 a.m.

Opening session with team and team leader

8:30 a.m.

Daily stretch and walk with both teams

9:00 a.m.

Group therapy/education/discussion

10:00 a.m.

Group relaxation or movement exercise

11:00 a.m.

Physical therapy/exercise

12:00 p.m.

Lunch

1:00 p.m.

Group therapy/education/discussion

2:00 p.m.

Group therapy/education/discussion

3:00 p.m.

Occupational therapy

4:00 p.m.

Closing session with both teams

4:15 p.m.

Dismissal

 

While structure not only one of the hardest parts of the program, it was also one of the best parts of the program. They kept us busy with group class time, planned relaxation, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and meetings with our assigned nurses. There was no time for naps (which Mayo discourages).

Each day was split into different sessions, including a series on pain education to help us better understand what pain is and what causes it. There were classes on lifestyle to help us improve diet and sleep; on coping skills such as deep breathing, distraction, and mindfulness; and on body mechanics and physical conditioning so we could avoid making our pain worse. There was also psychological therapy available to help us accept pain and change self-limiting thoughts. Finally, we had homework each night, which usually consisted of answering questions about our pain and our reactions to that pain. We also charted our medication and set daily goals working with our team leaders and assigned nurses.

On the weekends, there was more time for participants to regroup, recuperate, and recollect. Those who lived close to Rochester often drove home to spend time with loved ones. As for me, I chose to stay in town over the weekends to focus on my progress. I also spent time visiting over the phone with my wife, connecting with other program attendees, shopping, re-writing notes, and doing laundry.

The clinic did make sure that our weekends had some structure. For instance, on Friday, we would complete a weekend planner detailing activities to do on Saturday and Sunday by the hour. This may include things like showering, stretching and exercise, eating, recreating, relaxing/sleeping, and other tasks. Planning was a key element of the program.

Your Progress is Monitored

The PRC is evidence-based – measuring improvement from start to finish.  Members of the treatment team communicated with each other about participants and their overall development. Once a week, participants met individually with a large group of program staff members, including psychologists, doctors, nurses, and the program medical director, to review individual progress in the program. In addition to getting feedback, it was our chance to ask questions and share any challenges we were facing.

You May Get Sticker Shock

The program isn’t cheap – about $40,000. And that does not include housing, food, or travel expenses. However, I was fortunate in that my health insurance helped to pay for the program. Mayo’s insurance team worked with my insurer on my behalf to confirm coverage before I attended. I only spent about $3,500 out of pocket for my hotel and food.

My Bottom Line on Pain Rehabilitation

I highly recommend the Mayo PRC. They changed the way I think about pain and how I respond to it. I now have control over my life, instead of the pain controlling me. My scores for flexibility, strength, and endurance improved between the time I entered the program and finished, as did my scores for depression and perceived pain level. I wasn’t alone. I saw and heard many testimonials during my time at the PRC, including:

  • A patient who came to the clinic in a wheelchair and left walking
  • A patient who previously could not enter a mall because the smells would trigger migraine attacks; she was later able to go to the mall and even into a Bath & Body Works store which is full of scents.
  • A patient who came to the clinic wearing sandals because of pain from the sensation of shoes on their feet and ended up wearing socks and regular shoes by the end of the program.

I’m sharing what I learned at Mayo to help other chronic pain patients with their pain journeys. I’m not associated with Mayo Clinic or compensated in any way for this review.Check out my website at chronicpainchampions.com,which has additional resources including my free eBook and Facebook support group.

Updated on: 05/19/20
Continue Reading:
Stop Whining and More No-Nonsense Tips from a Chronic Pain Champion
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