The Importance of Pain Management in Wound Care

By Janice Reynolds, Guest Columnist

A recent article by Kaiser Health News on the difficulty of healing chronic wounds caught my attention.  After reading it several times, I was concerned with the message it was sending -- it seemed much like the misleading articles we see on the evils of opioids or how pain management is not being done right.

One of the red flags was the lack of any mention of skin and wound nurses. Or the important relationship pain management has in wound healing.

In the world of wound care, skin and wound nurses are the experts.  They are usually asked to consult by physicians and surgeons in managing wounds. Wound clinics may be run by them or in partnership with a physician. Our local clinic is managed by a skin and wound nurse and a foot physician.

While I never did the certification for Skin, Ostomy and Wound Care, I did manage my hospital’s wound team for a couple of years, so I studied as much as I could.  I also presented at several medical conferences on pain management in wound care. Those are my qualifications for this input.

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Like pain management, wound care is very difficult, as there are so many different types of wounds and different ways patients respond to them.

There are wounds from bites (I saw one where a pig took a chunk out of a kid’s calf), diabetic ulcers, peripheral ulcers caused by poor circulation, pressure sores, burns, trauma, and cancer. Some surgical wounds get infected and have to be reopened, or just don’t heal correctly to start with. 

As mentioned in the article, necrotizing fasciitis is difficult to heal and, in extreme cases, amputation is used to stop it. Radiation therapy can cause severe irritation and lead to a skin breakdown. Thrush, fungus, and moist desquamation caused by constant moisture can also cause a skin breakdown. There are so many more.

Pain is a huge issue in the management of wounds.  Entire chapters on pain are included in textbooks on Skin and Wound Care.  Pain inhibits wound healing, increases the likelihood of infection, and creates stress and anxiety.  This all effects quality of life. This is fact, not opinion.

There is pain related to the wound itself and what is called incidental pain – pain that is caused by dressing changes, debridement or other types of medical care. Of course, some patients are unfortunate enough to already have acute or chronic pain from another condition, in addition to the wound itself.

Opioids have always been the core of wound pain management, whether they’re delivered intravenously, orally (pills), or even topically.

I was once expressing frustration to my airline seat partner, who was a physician, on the difficulty I had trying to get my hospital to allow me to try a morphine gel compound which went directly in the wound. There had been several studies which had good results.  He looked at me in surprise and said, “I usually just drip morphine into the wound.”

Providers in wound care are like those in pain management. Some are very good, some adequate, some just barely make an attempt, and then there are those who deny the pain exists, blame the patient, say it only lasts for a minute, and so on.  This unfortunately has changed for the worse.

There are two large issues effecting the healing of chronic wounds and neither are the development of better dressings.  The first, but not the greatest problem, is money. Wound care is expensive.  It can be the cost of the dressing material or the expense of treating a patient at home.  Many insurers are selective about what they will pay for, and patients without insurance are tremendously lacking in adequate treatment.

The hysteria over opioids and pain management in general has greatly affected wound care. Opiophobia, fearmongering, McCarthyism, and my personal favorite -- yellow journalism -- have changed the way some providers look at and treat pain. In the War on Drugs, patients with wounds have also been causalities.    

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Janice Reynolds is a retired nurse who specialized in pain management, oncology, and palliative care. She has lectured across the country at medical conferences on different aspects of pain and pain management, and is co-author of several articles in peer reviewed journals. 

Janice has lived with persistent post craniotomy pain since 2009.  She is active with The Pain Community and writes several blogs for them. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.