Selecting a Pain Management Specialist

Are you one of the 100 million Americans suffering from chronic pain? Wondering how to get relief, and more importantly how to seek competent medical care to find sustained relief? Complex pain problems often require complex solutions. That’s why you may need a physician with specialty training in pain management.

What is a Pain Management Specialist?

A pain management specialist is defined as a physician who is trained in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of different types of pain (including chronic pain, acute pain, and cancer pain). A pain management specialist first determines the source of pain and then develops a systematic treatment plan to relieve, reduce, or manage pain. They help patients return to function in everyday activities (including work and sports) without surgery or heavy reliance on medication. Physiatrists are medical physicians who specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation (i. e. their focus is on restoring function). Some physiatrists have advanced fellowship training in pain management and are ideally suited to ensure against long term dependence on unnecessary medications or surgeries.

So please check to ensure that the doctor is board certified in pain management and has had fellowship training specifically in pain management. A fellowship is additional specialized training after residency and medical school. Board certification is evidence that the doctor has been tested to demonstrate their competence, in standards commensurate with the fellowship training.

How Do I Get Referred to a Pain Specialist?

Your primary care physician may be able to refer you to a good pain management specialist within your insurance network — although many pain management physicians accept patients without a referral from another physician. Word-of-mouth referrals (from family members or friends who know good pain management doctors) are common. They provide a level of comfort with the doctor, since a loved one or close acquaintance recommended them.

Determining Who is the Right Pain Doctor for You

Online searches reveal numerous pain physicians, who seemingly offer similar services. How can you determine who is trustworthy and experienced? Here is a list of questions and information to help you find the best pain management physician in your area:

How does the doctor rate?

Do an online survey to determine which pain specialists have high ratings and positive patient feedback. Also, with the number of people suffering with chronic pain, odds are you have friends and family members who will be able to give you a first-hand word-of-mouth recommendation.

How much time do they spend with you on your initial examination?

It may take up to two hours to thoroughly perform an initial assessment on a patient with a complex pain disorder. Consequently, if they typically finish new patient consultations in 15 minutes to a half hour, you probably are going to be disappointed with their approach. In other words, you are probably seeking integrity, dedication and empathy versus Wham! — Bam! –Thank you Ma’am!

Does the doctor take an inter-disciplinary approach?

In other words do they work with a team of experts (e. g. nurses, therapists, lifestyle experts and other physicians) who are concerned with your overall state of health or quality of life as a whole person. You can discern this by their focus during the examination. Do they ask about your capacity to cope with your disability emotionally, as well as physically. Do they examine your whole body as well as how you function (e. g. your gait pattern/walking) or is their sole focus on just one body part, medications and/or procedures?

How diverse are the doctors skills?

The best pain management doctors use a multimodal approach, and have wide ranging skills in both diagnosing and treating a wide array of painful disorders. Their skill set may entail imaging studies (CT and MRI), image-guided procedures (navigating needles catheters and probes to determine the cause of pain or to provide relief), nerve function tests (e. g. EMG), physical therapy to improve function, psychotherapy to improve coping skills, and lifestyle changes (like nutritional and exercise programs) to maintain your overall health.

Does the doctor have experience treating your particular condition?

Some pain management physicians are specialized in a certain type of pain treatment. Others provide highly specialized treatments for a wide range of disorders; suggesting that you should research all the services. You could be wasting your time if the physician does not have adequate knowledge about your condition. For example many pain management physicians have a little experience treating craniofacial pain (like trigeminal neuralgia or TMJ). Others do not have much to offer for patients suffering from pelvic pain or coccydynia (tailbone pain).


Finding the right pain management specialist is like investigating an important purchase, except in this case the quality of your life literally depends on it. Do your homework. Get reviews from your loved ones, friends and online community and make sure you feel comfortable with them. Choosing the right pain management specialist will guard against long-term medication dependence or failed surgeries – undoubtedly, benefitting you in the long run. All the best!

Dr. Joseph Fortin, DO Dr. Joseph Fortin is the Medical Director at Spine Technology and Rehabilitation and a Clinical Professor at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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