Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain. I am one of them. And it’s one of the reasons I became a licensed professional counselor.

The CDC estimates 50 million Americans – just over 20 percent of the adult population – have chronic pain. About 20 million of them have “high-impact chronic pain” – pain severe enough that it frequently limits life or work activities.

People struggling with chronic pain need help. The pain is real. It is debilitating and it is often linked to anxiety, depression, and a reduced quality of life. The NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health estimates chronic pain contributes to about $56 billion annually in direct medical costs, lost productivity, and disability programs in the United States.

High Impact Chronic Pain (HICP) sufferers not only have more severe pain, they are more likely to have mental and cognitive health issues, as well as substantially higher health care costs. About 83 percent of people with HICP are unable to work and one-third of them have difficulty with simple activities such as bathing and getting dressed.

But the enormous pain and suffering we experience is too often drowned out by the nationwide focus on opioid dependence, addiction, and abuse. That’s not to say opioid abuse is not real. It is. And people are dying as a result.

The attention to opioid abuse is important and necessary. But so is the need to focus on those of us who suffer from chronic pain. 

For years, physicians prescribed opioids because they were thought to be an effective medication to alleviate pain and to manage long-term chronic pain. The problem is opioids are not effective in actually treating chronic pain. So, the pain increases over time and individuals begin increasing the amount of opioids taken. Patients believe more medication will be the answer. But it’s not and they often end up addicted to the drug.

In 2006, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that sometimes accompanies rheumatoid arthritis. My immune system attacks parts of my own body by mistake, causing enormous pain.  What I was experiencing was very isolating. That kind of pain can contribute to depression and suicidal thoughts. But knowing I actually had something, was a blessing.

Having a diagnosis pinpointing the cause of my chronic pain was very important to me. It gave me a path to deal with the pain. It helped me understand that I was not imagining the pain. That it was real, and it had a cause.

I was prescribed opioids by my provider, but I took them for a very short time. I did not like the way the drug made me feel and I discontinued it. My search for help and answers led me to art therapy. That was an eye-opener and a lifesaver. 

For many people, finding the right words to express what is going on inside can be difficult and often uncomfortable. Art materials can provide access to the language of color and shape, allowing individuals to find new ways to communicate and more accurately relay their inner world.

Colored pencils arranged to show different emotions are displayed in Shelton’s office.

The stigma surrounding chronic pain is so discouraging, because others cannot see that someone is in pain.  Sadly, chronic pain sufferers are often accused of being malingerers – lazy, do-nothing kind of people who lack initiative. We often get labeled as chronic complainers by friends, relatives, coworkers and others. 

Art therapy helped me create a meaningful life without pain. And thanks to my experience, led me to become a certified art therapist which, when coupled with my training as a licensed professional therapist lets me help people in pain. When my clients find out I have chronic pain, they relax and know I am there to help and not to judge them.

Shelton displays a piece of her own artwork made as she worked simultaneously with a patient.

It is important to recognize that medication alone is not designed to address chronic pain – medication can turn the noise down, so a counselor can come in and help with alternative therapies. I use art therapy to help my clients struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, chronic pain, and self-esteem issues find hope and relief. There other alternatives to medication as well, including yoga, meditation, acupuncture, breathing exercises, and supplements. Some chronic pain sufferers also find relief with CBD oil, which is extracted from hemp flowers. 

My commitment to battling chronic pain led me to be a founding board member of the new Global Pain Association, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people manage and overcome chronic pain. The Association’s goal is to find resources that are affordable and available to those who are seeking pain management alternative therapies. 

It can be difficult to find alternatives to pain medications. Those alternatives are not readily discussed. And some providers are not aware of them. That’s part of the reason I’m so excited about the new Global Pain Association. There are answers out there. And take it from my own experience, they work to alleviate chronic pain.

Salina Shelton is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Certified Registered Art Therapist. She specializes in working with individuals and families experiencing chronic pain. She provides art therapy,...