IN EXCESS : Pain, Pain, Go Away

Flat on her back in the hospital a few weeks ago, Jenny's answer to pain relief was at her fingertips. Now it's at her throat.

Jenny had been screaming in agony after abdominal surgery when doctors gave her a self-regulated IV so she could adminster her own narcotic painkillers. It was magic.

But when she left the hospital, Jenny (not her real name) began to worry about something she'd never faced before: addiction. "I kept thinking about Liz Taylor, and now Don Johnson. This can be serious. I don't want to be on drugs forever," Jenny says.

Many hospital patients confront the same fear. After being tended by doctors and nurses who quell their suffering with pills and IV drugs, they go home only find themselves staring at the label on their prescription bottles, terrified of what doctors now call "dependency."

As it turns out, Jenny's doctors didn't just hand her a bottle of Vicodin and wave goodby. Like an increasing number of hospitals and physicians, they referred her to a pain management specialist to help her juggle pain and drugs. There are dozens of local facilities that specialize in helping people cope with pain, most of them focusing on chronic pain. In the last few years, though, more of them have been helping post-op patients.

Jenny's first visit was typical: A doctor interviewed her to evaluate her potential for addiction, then made a prescription. "He kept saying, 'I'm not going to cut you off,' but I was used to the pain relief from all these drugs in the hospital," she says. "Sometimes I think you need help getting off them."

"It's a very complex issue," says Dr. Fred Nowroozi, head of the Fountain Valley-based Center for Excellence in Pain Manangement. "But the incidents of addiction in people that have never been addicted is very minimal."

Minimal, maybe, but nurses at the Betty Ford Center say they see their fair share of patients trying to get the doctor-prescribed monkey off their backs. "I've seen it start as benign as oral surgery or a tooth extration, and later down the line, they get addicted," says Virgina Robertson, a nurse at the center.

So difficult can this be that Jenny, even with the guidance of doctors trained specifically in the field, had to check into a drug rehabilitation center just weeks after her surgery. She says the bout with pain and pain management is not an easy one to win. "It's tougher than it looks, but I don't want to be doing this for the rest of my life."

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