Matthew McCarty, M.D., treats pain. Not run-of-the-mill aches and soreness, but serious pain—the kind that disrupts lives by making it difficult or impossible to work, sleep, or sustain healthy relationships. Many of the people who end up in his office at Balcones Pain Consultants in Austin, Texas, have spent months or even years trying to manage their chronic pain with medication—and therein lies the problem, according to Dr. McCarty.
Many painkillers are quite potent—and potentially addictive. Dr. McCarty believes they have a role, but mostly as a last resort. He favors a multi-disciplinary approach to managing pain, which includes physical therapy and treatments such as spinal cord stimulation, in which a doctor delivers a mild electrical pulse to the spine. “That causes pain signals to the brain to be dampened,” reports Dr. McCarty, who says the treatment works well for many conditions that produce pain.
In addition, there’s a great deal patients can do for themselves, he says. Yoga, meditation and Pilates can help overcome pain-induced physical limitations and dial down stress and anxiety. Losing weight is critical, too. Dr. McCarty estimates that seven out of 10 men and women he treats are overweight. Dropping just 10 pounds can help reduce chronic neck and back pain, he says.
It’s when patients begin to regain mobility and a degree of control over their symptoms that Dr. McCarty prescribes his surprising secret weapon against chronic pain: volunteer work. Unlikely as it might sound, pitching in for a few hours at the local soup kitchen can reduce persistent backaches, prevent arthritis flare-ups and generally help to manage pain and related symptoms, he says. Several studies have found that people with chronic pain and ailments that limit mobility experienced symptom improvement after they began volunteering their time to help others in need. “My underlying goal is to see people living free of the grip of pain,” says Dr. McCarty. “I have found remarkable success in people who give back to others.”
How does he sell volunteer work to people tormented by a bulging spinal disk or struggling with fibromyalgia pain, for whom getting off the couch and out the door can seem like obstacle enough? “I tell patients, I know you can’t stand for very long, but I know you can spread mayonnaise on bread to make sandwiches at the local homeless shelter for a few hours,” says Dr. McCarty. “I challenge patients.”
No one is sure why volunteering provides pain relief, but Dr. McCarty believes that connecting with others in need helps to shift a person’s focus away from his or her own complaints. Volunteer work also helps to prevent a sense of isolation, which can cause anxiety and intensify pain symptoms. “Pain is one of those conditions that drives us away from others,” Dr. McCarty says. “I think patients who volunteer get back as much as they give.”
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