Innovations in Community Mental Health: Southeast's Alternative Pain Management Program

Imagine it’s the Spring of 2020. You’re stuck at home, like everyone else, due to COVID-19. But you have chronic pain, and you can’t see your doctor. There is no relief in sight and you have no idea when this is all going to end. Not only that, but the world’s a pretty scary place right now, so your physical pain is compounded by fear, grief, and depression.

Unfortunately, in 2020, too many Americans turned to substances, like marijuana, alcohol, and opioids, to manage their stress and chronic pain. Whether it's using medications to treat pain and then becoming addicted or using the substance to deal with challenging life situations- it’s clear that opioids should be less prevalent and harder to obtain.

According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), about 10% of people (or 10.9 million people) aged 12 or older who used drugs other than alcohol in the past year, said they believed they used those substances more during the pandemic. And drug overdoses are up too. Preliminary data from the CDC shows that they are expecting to have found that there were more than 100-thousand drug deaths in the U.S. between June 2020 and June 2021. In Colorado, there was an over 30% increase in drug overdose deaths in that same period.

Long gone are the days that we can say this is someone else’s problem. All of us are impacted by substance use misuse or abuse, either directly or through people we know. OUDs cost taxpayers in the state of Colorado millions of dollars. The CDC estimates that opioid use costs our state $14,417,500 per year. That is money that could be used to develop new treatment programs across the state, including funding new types of pain programs. The human impacts are devastating. The impact of an opioid use disorder (OUD) can be felt through the loss of life or close relationships.

That’s where Southeast Health Group comes in. Covering the six-county region of southeast Colorado, they saw a problem and they came up with a creative, innovative solution. That area was seeing the highest opioid overdose rates, and health providers were struggling to find ways to link people to appropriate care rather than exclusively relying on medications to manage chronic pain. Southeast’s Alternative Pain Management Program was created to keep patients away from pain medications and use methods you’ve probably never thought were associated with pain or pain management.

Southeast's Methods Include:

  • Dry needling
  • Exercise coaching
  • Chiropractic care
  • Cupping
  • Massage
  • Kinesiology taping
  • Hydrotherapy
  • AcuDetox
  • Acupuncture

So, when someone faces chronic pain, instead of putting them on medications that wreak havoc on their bodies and could cause life-altering negative side effects, they’re now treating their pain in healthier and more sustainable ways. It can be used on those already feeling the effects of opioid addiction as well. These practices have been shown to reduce cravings and support recovery. Southeast also contracts with local chiropractors, massage therapists, and other holistic care providers to offer clients access to these services they may not have tried before in treating pain. This means revenue for business owners and community partnership building for Southeast.

It wasn’t always easy to convince patients that these methods were going to replace their medicine. Aleala Bickel is a Physical Therapy Assistant and the Pain Management Program for Southeast Health Group and spoke about getting patients on board with the new methods. “One client that really stands out to me as successful, thanks to this program, was very active prior to multiple injuries, which resulted in her needing a total of eight back surgeries,” Bickel says, “Between those surgeries, medication, injections, and a variety of other attempts, she still couldn’t seem to get rid of her back pain. She was very skeptical when she first began my class.” But Bickel goes on to say that that very same client began cupping, personal training, and a few other methods through the program, and now she has been able to work a part-time job, exercise, and overall regain a lot of her life that she thought had been lost forever to pain.

That client isn’t alone in noticing these positive outcomes, after getting on board with the treatments. 56% of the participants at Southeast Health Group had an increase in their quality of life since they started the program. And 53% said their pain levels went down. The effects on mental wellbeing came along with it, 38% of participants said they have decreased anxiety levels.

The effort to grow and expand these services isn’t over. Southeast Group was recently one of two health centers to get grant funding to become a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic (CCBHC), joining two others across the state.  Being a CCBHC means increased emphasis on substance use disorder treatment services, something Southeast knows is an important cornerstone of their care. It also means that clients will be served regardless of whether they can pay for the services.

Southeast Health Group is pioneering the way to a new frontier of pain treatment and management and is eager to share their model with other providers who are looking to help our communities stay healthy in years to come.