A handful of Boulder researchers and medical professionals see America's opioid crisis as an opportunity to introduce the community to new research and treatments for chronic pain.

The next installment in the Grillo Health Information Center's Stahl Lecture Series explores the neuroscience behind pain and painkiller alternatives. Tuesday's lecture, " The Pain Threshold: The neuroscience and spirituality of suffering," merges Eastern and Western philosophies, including the psychology of pain, spiritual implications, and politics of substance abuse. Such topics will be covered by a panel of local experts brought together by Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk, medical education director at Boulder-based Grillo.

Recent criticism of painkillers provides an opening to reach pain patients and their loved ones who may otherwise be close-minded to less conventional treatment methods and ideas, said Rusk, who has worked with pain patients for more than 20 years and is co-director of the Healthy Brain Program at The Brain and Behavior Clinic in Boulder.

"There's this cultural epidemic to want to block pain right away, which is an understandable reflex or impulse, because it's uncomfortable," Rusk said. "But if we give people a new perspective on pain then maybe instead of just suppressing or avoiding it they'll see it as an opportunity to explore self help and be more empowered in their pain."


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As this story was being reported, the event filled up and Grillo closed registration, but staff said a video of the discussion would be available a couple of weeks after the event at grillocenterhealth.com.

Chronic pain is typically defined as that which lasts at least three months, said Charles Horowitz, a psychotherapist and co-founder of Pain Partners of Colorado, who will join the discussion. But chronic pain is subjective and emotional, as well as physical, making it a challenge to properly diagnose and treat, he said.

The opioid crisis has exposed the failings of conventional pain medicine, opening the window for a new wave of research and treatments, many of which are based on assertions that chronic pain has more to do with the brain than actual tissue in the spot that is hurting, Horowitz said.

Dr. Tom Wager of the University of Colorado's Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience lab will speak about research on the brain's relation to physical pain, and Dr. Steven Wright will discuss pain management from a family and addiction medicine perspective.

Warm pool therapies, yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, acupuncture and support groups are providing relief for some chronic pain patients, including those with back pain — one of the most common medical problems in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Horowitz was disabled in the 1980s by back pain that stemmed from an accident, and he found no reprieve in medical interventions. It was a combination of psychotherapy, exercise, behavioral methods and support groups that alleviated his pain.

Now, Horowitz leads a chronic pain support group in Boulder that addresses the isolation often experienced by pain patients, which can exasperate pain and cause depression.

"People with chronic pain are isolated, because culturally it's a prohibited topic," Horowitz said. "It's an invisible problem, because it can't be measured and that makes it worse."

In Eastern medicine, the onset of these self-inflicted, psychological symptoms are differentiated from pain and defined as suffering, which Dr. Thomas Richardson will explain during the lecture. Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual pain are unavoidable, said Richardson, who teaches and practices acupuncture and oriental medicine in Boulder. But suffering is something we bring upon ourselves, like guilt or shame, because of our experience of pain, he said.

"We tend to demonize pain and think of it as a bad thing, but it can be a huge blessing," Richardson said.

Embracing pain is not natural in Western culture, but Richardson hopes he can open patients' minds to new healing opportunities during the lecture.

Rusk described the lecture as a judgement-free zone, and she said it is not without a call to action.

"It's important that people be responsible to take care of their pain and listen to the directive that pain is giving," She said. "That's one of the goals of the lecture, to empower people to ask more questions, to get more information when they go to their doctors and to know that there might be other options than what their provider is giving them."