Mornings always start the same for Natalie Hixson.
She wakes around 6 a.m. Her husband brings her 10 milligrams of methadone. Hixson takes the opiate pain medication and, for the next hour, lies still.
Hixson suffers from chronic pain. Her shoulders and back ache from years of rodeo injuries and a car accident a few years ago that she said could have killed her.
By 7 a.m., Natalie Hixson, 46, a former rodeo barrel racer, is able to get out of bed, her husband, Kenneth, there to help.
Her pain fading, she can start her day, feeding horses and tending to the couple’s Airedale terriers on the family’s 140-acre ranch in Muldrow in eastern Oklahoma.
Hixson has been going to a doctor for chronic pain management for about four years. It’s the only way she’s able to maintain her quality of life, she said.
“Everybody wants to think you’re just a druggie, or you’re a pill head, but it’s just like taking blood pressure medicine — you take blood pressure medicine to lower your blood pressure,” Hixson said. “Well, you take pain medication to lower your pain level. It’s something that’s needed.”
Hixson is among more than 76 million people in the United States who live with chronic pain, according to the National Institutes of Health. Surveys show that almost half of them receive no treatment, according to the NIH.
Pain-victim advocates say people who suffer chronic pain often are stigmatized, left untreated and misunderstood.
“It’s just a prejudice thing,” said Robert Wiley, national facilitator for the National Pain Patients Coalition, an advocacy group. “They think because you’re taking medications to get through the day to get a higher quality of life that you’re a drug addict. There’s a difference between dependence and addiction.”
Unlike acute pain, chronic pain is persistent and long-lasting, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. With chronic pain, pain signals keep firing in the nervous system for weeks, months and even years, according to the institute.
Hixson could not function without her medication, she said.
About four years ago, Hixson’s primary care doctor told her that he’d never had a patient with such a high pain tolerance.
Because of her intense pain, Hixson’s blood pressure was reaching alarmingly high rates. Her doctor told her that she needed to try something more than over-the-counter medicine, she said.
Hixson was leery of narcotics. She had a loved one with a drug problem that had started with pain pills.
But she was growing depressed and could no longer do the things she loved, like garden and ride her horses. She started going to Dr. Ronald V. Myers Sr., a family practice physician in Roland, for pain management. The results changed her life, she said.
Hixson takes 10 milligrams of methadone at 6 a.m., 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. At the clinic, she is regularly drug tested, and she receives frequent calls for “pill counts,” where she must drive to her doctor’s office for his staff to count the number of pills she has left.
She appreciates these safety measures, hoping that it helps better ensure that medications are kept out of the hands of addicts.
“I wish people would open their eyes up when it comes to pain management doctors and the reason that they’re there,” she said. “You have heart doctors, and there’s a reason that they’re there, and these doctors actually do a good job, and they put up with a lot of flack over it.”
Won’t Let Pain Define Her
This month, Melanee Ballard hopes to put up a Christmas tree — if she can stand up for that long.
Ballard, 56, a grandmother, hasn’t put up a tree in two years because the pain that radiates through her back and shoulders regularly limits her activities.
Every day, she hurts.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst, I would say at least a 7 every day,” Ballard said, in regards to her pain level.
In late 2012, Ballard fell and broke her wrist and ankle. Since then, she has been diagnosed with arthritis and developed fibromyalgia, a disorder that can cause widespread musculoskeletal pain and fatigue, along with sleep, memory and mood issues, according to the Mayo Clinic.
So far, Ballard has chosen not to take prescription painkillers like oxycodone or hydrocodone. She fears that they’re habit forming, and she has seen the drugs wreck lives.
Instead, she takes naproxen, or Aleve, and Flexeril, a muscle relaxer. She has also received steroid injections, but she worries about what impact those could have long term. She’s not sure what her long-term plan is or when the pain might be alleviated.
The life of a chronic pain patient can be lonely. It’s hard for Ballard to leave the house for long periods of time and she has stopped going out with friends. The people she most interacts with are her doctors and a psychologist for her depression. Ballard takes an anti-anxiety medicine.
Ballard said she refuses to lie down and die or let her pain define who she is.
“I’ve got to keep moving, or I will just get to where I can’t do anything,” Ballard said. “I just am going to refuse to let this defeat me. With prayer and determination, I’ll make it through, active for my grandkids and my kids and my husband — I’ll make it through for them.”
Dr. Rita Hancock describes herself as a “non-narcotic pain management specialist.”
That hasn’t always been the case.
About 10 years ago, the Oklahoma City physician was visiting a physical therapist for back pain. The treatment helped and caused Hancock to change the way treated her own patients.
“At that point, I decided I wasn’t going to cover up the problem any more with medicines,” the Oklahoma City doctor said. “I wanted to use my hands to fix the problem.”
Hancock is trained as a medical doctor, which is different than an osteopathic physician.
However, she has spent the past several years attending about 800 hours of osteopathic medicine training, where she’s learned to use her hands to diagnose the causes of chronic pain in her patients.
Recently, Hancock examined a patient who had suffered back pain for 30 years. The patient had tried physical therapy, chiropractors, spinal injections and prescription pain management, and found little relief.
Hancock found that the tissue around the patient’s ribs were so tense that the patient’s rib cage wasn’t expanding properly, straining the muscles.
Hancock was able to release some of the tension in the patient’s ribs, and that patient left about 40 percent better, she said. These are the types of patients that Hancock wants to see walk through her door.
It is “exceedingly rare,” Hancock stresses, for her to prescribe narcotics.
“I’m looking for people who don’t want the pain medicine, and if they’re looking for a solution, those are the people I want,” she said. “If I give somebody pain medicine, then I really believe they need it. It’s exceedingly rare. I’m looking for that subgroup I can actually fix.”
Contributing: Warren Vieth of Oklahoma Watch.
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