When Suffering Doesn’t Go Away


Dr. Michael Amster says the team at the Center for Pain Management works to break the cycle of pain.

Twisted ankles and toothaches are painful, but temporary. Pain that keeps you from sleeping or working or lasts for weeks or months is chronic, according to Michael Amster, M.D., director of the Center for Pain Management, a NorthBay affiliate.

When chronic pain—from old injuries, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, or a host of other illnesses or conditions—gets so bad you can’t otherwise perform the daily duties of life, it’s time to enlist the help of pain management experts.

“I will not let pain define me. They’ve taught me that I can choose to feel better.”

—Debbie Medina

The Center for Pain Management uses a team approach to help chronic pain patients break what can become a cycle of discomfort. Pain leads to stress, which can lead to insomnia and depression, putting a strain on relationships and increasing financial concerns, all of which exacerbates the original physical ailments. “All of that further impedes the healing process,” Dr. Amster explains.

The Center for Pain Management team of specially trained physicians and nurse practitioners helps patients find their own way to overcome discomfort so they can heal their bodies, as well as their minds and spirits, Dr. Amster says. Patients may be referred to a nutritionist, physical therapist or rehabilitation professional to assist in meeting their individual needs.

Many have found additional relief after participating in the center’s eight-week Pain Management Essentials program. During the classes, patients learn how pain works on the brain. They’re taught pain triggers and how to avoid or manage them. They learn posture awareness and relaxation techniques. They may also receive nutrition counseling and goal-setting advice. Massage, meditation, yoga and physical therapy, as well as medications, may also be brought into the mix.

The Pain Management Essentials program, which began in 2005, is a compilation of best practices from pain management centers throughout the United States, Dr. Amster explains. In the past six years, “we’ve been able to collect enough data to show that our patients are less depressed, use fewer medicines, are more functional, can return to work and have significantly improved their lives.”

The Pain Management Essentials program will begin a new eight-week session in September, says Dr. Amster.

Debbie Medina, 47, says the Pain Management Essentials program gave her a renewed reason to live. “I was in decent health until I was 30,” says the Vacaville resident and former Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer.

Medina has degenerative disks in her back, had numerous surgeries and liver tumors, as well as a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. “I have scar tissue from top to bottom,” she says. She also struggles with being overweight, but never felt her weight was a road-block to her treatment at the Center for Pain Management. “They didn’t stop at ‘Oh, this is because you’re fat,’” she says with gratitude. “They see the big picture. They’re not dismissive here; they encourage me to find ways to continue with my volunteer work.

“Before getting treatment at the center, I used to be in such pain I would cry and moan, and was depressed all the time,” Medina recalls. “But Dr. Amster and the staff have taught me how to quit feeling sorry for myself, to find things I can feel positive about, and to fix what I can fix. I liked to host big parties, for example, but now I have small gatherings.”

Medina has received additional help and guidance by attending the Center’s Brilliant Health program, which focuses on maintaining a positive attitude.

“They’ve taught me that I can choose to feel better, or not,” Medina says. “I will not let pain define me. I’ve broken the pain and ‘poor me’ circle.”

“A good attitude is so important,” Dr. Amster agrees. “We have a choice in how we look at things. That’s what we emphasize here, ways to stop being the victim.”

Diet, Exercise, Medication All in
the Team’s Arsenal

The Center for Pain Management uses a variety of treatment methods, including medicine and holistic therapies, physical therapy, diet and nutritional advice, to help patients break the cycle of chronic pain.

Open since 2005, the center’s specially trained team—Michael Amster, M.D., medical director; Cynthia Pena, M.D., anesthesiologist and pain management specialist; Tamara Lee, nurse practitioner; and Kathryn Gee, family nurse practitioner; along with a nutritionist, physical therapist and rehabilitation specialist—works closely with each patient and their families to set treatment plans to meet individual goals.

Treatment plans could include:

  • Physical therapy and body conditioning
  • Medications
  • Anesthetic injections
  • Psychological counseling and support
  • Massage
  • Relaxation and biofeedback
  • Behavior modification
  • Chiropractic
  • Health and nutrition counseling
  • Non-traditional therapies, including acupuncture
  • Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS). A “TENS unit” is a pocket size, portable, battery-operated device that sends mild electrical impulses to certain parts of the body to block pain signals.
  • Educational opportunities, through Pain Management Essentials classes and Brown Bag Lunch Series.

For more information about the center, located at 1101 B. Gale Wilson Blvd., Suite 307, in Fairfield, call (707) 646-4666.

Relax, Meditate and Stop ‘Guarding’
Your Pain

“People in chronic pain tend to ‘guard’ their painful area,” observes Anna Flores, physical therapy assistant with NorthBay Rehabilitation Services. “This altered posture puts undue stress on other muscles and joints, and can cause a vicious cycle of perpetual pain and reduced function.”

When working with chronic pain patients, Flores teaches them to recognize when they are “guarding” and to work through it by focusing on breathing awareness, meditation, muscle relaxation and postural awareness.

“The idea is to help people to become more aware of their body and to honor their limitations,” she explains. “Instead of vacuuming the whole house, for example, and then having to lay in bed for a couple of weeks, recognize your triggers, and how long you can do a task. Maybe only vacuum one room at a time. It’s behavior modification.”

The physical therapists’ goal is to guide their chronic pain patients toward improved endurance, strength and flexibility.

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