We can’t always avoid acute or chronic pain, but Anesthesiologist Clarence Shannon, MD, wants to prevent it from overwhelming your daily life.
Shannon, a transplant from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, joined the University of Minnesota Health pain management program this year. His goal, he said, is to help people with pain keep doing the things they love.
“We’re not trying to completely eradicate your pain. That’s not always possible,” he said. “But if we can manage your pain so that you can function, so that you can enjoy your life—that’s the key.”
We talked with Shannon about how his techniques help to reduce the need for opioid medications, the role of pain in our lives as we age and the importance of mentors.
You’re an anesthesiologist, but your subspecialty is in pain management. What can you do for patients?
I see patients who have both acute and chronic pain. Patients with chronic pain are defined as those who have had some type of painful condition for over six months. A patient with acute pain is someone who experiences pain following a surgical procedure. We can use medications to manage pain, but we also employ a variety of techniques, such as nerve-block catheters and radiofrequency energy, to reduce our reliance on opioid-based remedies.
What are nerve-block catheters?
Let’s say you undergo surgery on your arm. I can use a targeted local anesthetic to block the pain signals from the nerves in that arm. The anesthetic is delivered to those nerves via a catheter and a pump to keep you comfortable while you’re recovering.
Our bodies don’t become reliant on that anesthetic like opioids?
Correct. The two techniques have a different effect on the body. Nerve-block catheters may leave your arm numb and they may limit your arm movement during recovery, but as a result we can decrease the amount of opioid medication used—which is very important in the post-operative period.
What about radiofrequency energy? What is that?
Simply stated, radiofrequency energy is heat. We use it to reduce arthritic pain. Using x-ray imaging to guide them, specialists insert a small needle near the nerves responsible for arthritis pain. The needle delivers heat to that nerve and puts it out of commission for six to 18 months, which interrupts the pain signals and greatly reduces the amount of pain and discomfort patients feel due to arthritis or other pain conditions. This technique also reduces our reliance on opioids, which might otherwise have been prescribed to reduce pain. Radiofrequency energy can also reduce the use of anti-inflammatory medications.
Is the total elimination of pain a reasonable goal? Why or why not?
As we get older, we’re going to have some aches and pains and bumps and bruises. That’s part of life. What I aim to do is manage pain. I want you to be able to pursue your daily activities with a minimal distraction from pain. I want you to go to that café and hang out with your friends and have a cup of coffee without being so preoccupied with pain that you can’t enjoy life. The most important question that I ask is: What’s one thing you are not able to do now that you would love to do? We identify that goal and through pain management we help patients reach that goal over time. We want to help people live, and not just focus on eliminating pain altogether.
How did you first get interested in pain management?
Mentoring. In high school, I was in a math and science summer program in Massachusetts for inner city kids. There, I met a college student who took me under his wing. Years later, I ran into him again on my medical school campus. He was an anesthesiology resident. We caught up and from that point forward, I followed him everywhere. If he was in the operating room, I was there. He introduced me to his friends. They taught me what they knew about anesthesia and pain management and I got really, really interested in what they practiced. I love teaching medical school students and residents. I think it’s incredibly important to mentor and give back.