Reaching beyond the pill

Fort Collins’ pain clinic takes an innovative approach to pain management that encourages personal goals and fosters community partnerships
June 7, 2016

During what was supposed to be the prime of Jason’s life, he found himself flat on his back. An MRI revealed that the 23-year-old’s severe pain stemmed from three injured discs in his lower back. The once straight-A welding student with a shining future was now facing a life of chronic pain.

Jason shuffled between doctors and medications, spent days under stacks of Medicaid and disability paperwork. Struggling with the side effects of medications, Jason felt isolated and alone. The situation was also hard on Jason’s wife. It wasn’t until she left him to go and stay with family that he decided he had to find a better system for managing his pain.

He turned to an innovative pain clinic that had just been created by UCHealth Family Medicine Center, UCHealth’s family residency program, in Fort Collins.

“Our goal here is to address pain in a different way — focusing on function rather than pain medications,” said Dr. David Marchant, medical director for FMC.

FMC developed a new pain clinic that focuses on improving function by providing alternative pain management methods, such as yoga and massage, educational classes on everything from pain addiction to acupuncture, mental health sessions and consistent provider appointments.

“If we focus on pain meds, then they focus on pain meds,” said Kathy Randall, pain clinic nurse manager. “Many people choose to taper off their meds, but that’s their choice. Our goal is that each patient is able to function better in their daily life.”

It starts with a multidisciplinary team approach. During the patient’s first visit, he/she meets with a nurse, a substance abuse counselor and behavioral health specialist, an FMC provider, a wellness counselor and a pharmacist. The team lays out the rules and expectations of the program and sets goals.

“We want them to set functional goals. We want our treatment to make a difference in their lives. We don’t want them to just be satisfied because we are treating their pain,” Marchant said. “Having them make and keep goals helps them to see themselves in a different light — that they can do things. They again start to see themselves as capable people.”

Just one result of the goal-setting structure: There has been an average 54 percent decrease in participants who smoke cigarettes.

Randall has worked hard to find community partnerships to provide drug-free alternatives to pain management. Most recently, clinic participants had an opportunity to join in a Colorado State University-led yoga program. Instructed by certified yoga teachers with occupational therapy degrees, the classes allowed CSU to study yoga’s effect on pain management and function while patients got free yoga sessions.

“We felt education was a powerful tool for patients to manage their own pain,” Randall said.

Randall set up a similar relationship with the Institute of Business and Medical Careers College to provide patients with free, weekly massages.

“We could hold classes on the benefits of massage or yoga, but if patients don’t have access to these alternatives, then we are wasting our time,” she said.

patient yoga
FMC Pain Clinic patients practice yoga, which is offered to 150 patients through a partnership with Colorado State University. CSU is researching the effectiveness of yoga for occupational therapy. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

And it’s working. Jason and his wife, who has returned to their home, are seeing a significant difference in Jason’s life. Where before he struggled to stand for more than 15 minutes at a time, he’s now doing yoga and has become “body aware,” he said.
And for his wife, the educational classes have helped her understand better what her husband is going through and how she can help.

“I’m able to understand his pain so much more,” she said. “I understand that he does need to rest when he’s hurting. I know that he needs to drink more water and how eating right affects him. I get it now.”

Jason is still on medication, but he has support from the pain clinic to make sure he’s managing it properly, as well as many other aspects of his life.

The clinic also encourages philanthropy and volunteerism. The meeting room in the clinic has a “gratitude tree,” and each leaf represents a patient who has recently given back to their community.

“Pain clinic has become its own community,” Randall said. “Everyone tries to help each other. Here they are understood. It’s hard for many of these people to even get up in the morning, but yet in pain clinic they do so much and take on such great goals.”

For Jason, the pain clinic has provided him the support, understanding and direction he so needed from day one of his accident.

“When you get injured, everything changes in your life,” Jason said. “It’s hard when you don’t have a visible injury. Your friends change because they don’t understand why you don’t want to go do things with them. Your family asks you to help, and they don’t understand when you say you can’t. It helps to be around a group that understands what you are going through. The support I’ve gotten here has changed my life.”

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.