Cure Me or I Give Up: The Role of Acceptance in Patient Self-Managing

September 10, 2010
Diana Pichardo

Rebecca Curtis, ACC, shares her experience as a chronic pain patient in accepting her condition and moving on with life.

Five years ago, Rebecca Curtis, ACC, was driving through Montana on a family road trip when she fell asleep at the wheel, wrecking and flipping the car multiple times. When Curtis awoke, she found that her neck was broken and her world forever changed. In the presentation, "Cure Me, or I Give Up: The Role of Acceptance in Patient Self-Management," Curtis shared her personal story as a difficult pain patient and the long journey to acceptance that helped her lead a new life as a healthcare provider specializing in supporting chronic pain patients.

Curtis began the session by reading off actual medical notes written by a physician about a difficult chronic pain patient. The patient was on a number of medications, reported their lack of effects or increase in side effects multiple times, the state of distress that the pain was causing her, and more. "The doctor really has a dilemma with this patient," Curtis told the crowd. "What do you do with a patient like that?"

The patient was her, of course. The notes belonged to her doctor. Curtis spent two years relearning how to walk and function, but one-half of her body remains hypersensitive, while the other half is insensitive to hot or cold. Any stress sends a wave of pain from her neck to her toes, but by learning a number of mind-body techniques, she is able to control this. Accepting the pain, though, would take more time. "My everyday was just eaten up by [questioning], how do I get rid of this pain?" she said. Medications and physical therapy treatment weren’t enough, Curtis said. She needed to embrace acceptance.

Curtis was sent to a pain clinic, where she thought she would be receiving a spinal cord stimulator. Instead, she tried a treatment program that focused on psychosocial and behavioral therapy. There, Curtis was able to begin developing a program for her chronic pain. "I quit looking for a cure," she said. "I accepted the fact that I had chronic pain."

Today, as a healthcare provider, Curtis focuses on helping other chronic pain patients deal with their conditions in proactive ways leading them to acceptance and self-management, and more. She organizes weekly interviews and group sessions with patients. Her presentation highlighted the importance of getting patients to take responsibility and control of their own program to manage their chronic pain. "There are things they can do to lessen their chronic pain," she said.

The goal is to increase the active participation in pain management. Patients feel empowered knowing they have the ability to take care of some things on their own. Obstacles to self-management include: past failures, fears, physician dependence, and frustration.

Simply telling a patient they need to accept their pain usually does not trigger welcome responses, however. Patients often get angry when they are told this. Still, it is an important first step for many, and because it is so important, she feels it should be mentioned as soon as possible so that patients can begin the process and ultimate goal of forming a new identity.

Curtis told the crowd that from experience, she had come to identify herself as only a chronic pain patient. "Life in chronic pain sounds like a death sentence, but it isn't," she said. "There is hope."