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Managing Pain the Alaskan Way

Updated: Aug 29, 2018

The Elders knew a thing or two about how to survive and thrive in the North. In this series introduction we suggest their wisdom still works today.

(This article was part of the introductory American Academy of Pain Medicine blog on Pain Management published as a joint effort with MedPageToday. Several of the posts on this site are reproductions of that series.)

He didn’t voice it outright, but I could see the gears turning in his head when we met at a conference a while back and he found out I was from the Last Frontier: “Do you guys apply whale blubber poultices frozen or heat them up first?”

After some reflection, no doubt, my colleague Dr. Ajay Wasan (Vice-President for Scientific Affairs, American Academy of Pain Medicine) kindly invited me to contribute to this blog from a “frontier” perspective as a practicing pain management and addictionology physician in Alaska.

While my viewpoints may not reflect the majority of my subarctic colleagues’ on many issues, one thing I think we’d all agree on is that up here, in the Last Frontier, we’ve always relied on what works. From our heterogenous Native and immigrant backgrounds, we bring different traditions and adaptations (hopefully proven and evidence-based) for addressing problems of serious importance. (We try not to sweat the small stuff.) But we’re also by necessity open to new ideas and paradigms – so long as they work. If something doesn’t work, we have a low threshold for modifying or abandoning it – survival depends on reliable processes.

If it’s Broke…

We have an issue up here that I gather isn’t unique to Alaska. There’s a growing realization that ‘business as usual’ in chronic pain management isn’t working. Costs are spiraling out of control, disability and despair are mushrooming, and the opioid epidemic is the crowning evidence of our failure. Physicians don’t get all the credit; nonetheless we’re the ones folks look to for guidance and help with making sense out of their physical complaints – none of which gets people’s attention quite like pain does. And yet what’s obvious to our thought leaders and even government remains mostly obscure to the participants (both providers and patients) in our mainstream pain management industry. That elephant in the exam room is the failure of our one-dimensional, reactive, and passivity-reinforcing treatment approach to benefit either individual patients or our society.

The National Pain Strategy among other consensus charters acknowledges the need for a biopsychosocial-spiritual approach... prevention... and self-efficacy.

The Institute of Medicine tells us that a third of us suffer with chronic pain. While that may represent a generous categorical breakpoint applied to a spectrum of ubiquitous human experience, the point is made – we’re talking about a widespread condition. And it's garnering growing attention from Washington for a number of reasons. Whether the actual prevalence of chronic pain is increasing (tough to measure without historic and comparable benchmarks) it’s clear that the societal impact is. During the half-century from 1961 to 2011, the proportion of back pain and other musculoskeletal complaints as the diagnosis conferring social security disability status essentially quadrupled (8.3% to 33.8%) with mental illness and developmental disabilities doubling (9.6% to 19.2%.) Cancer and respiratory illnesses haven’t changed appreciably in terms of their share of the pie, while cardiac, cerebrovascular and neurologic claims have declined proportionately with better treatment perhaps, but certainly in the face of the new majority [1]. At worst, in this post-agrarian and increasingly post-industrial society we’re reinforcing or encouraging pain complaints economically; at best it’s clear we’re not improving people’s perception of and resilience against their pain.

Other metrics such as the often-quoted figure of over $600 billion costs associated with chronic pain – with the attached mantra of “greater than heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined” support the notion that we’re not doing things well [2]. It’s no wonder then that leaders in our field (and outside of it) are calling for a revolution in how we go about treating chronic pain. If we don’t change things for the better – and soon – it’s likely not an exaggeration that we’ll bankrupt the healthcare and welfare budget, and the opioid epidemic is probably just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in terms of population-level chemical coping.

The Native Way

Trying to treat pain (or any chronic condition) with an exclusively somatic focus - looking just at the physical body - doesn’t work. That realization has permeated at least our ivory towers and conferences for the past few decades. The National Pain Strategy among other consensus charters acknowledges the need for a biopsychosocial-spiritual approach. But with all due respect to Dr. George Engel and his vastly important rediscovery, most cultures and societies since the dawn of time (not stymied by technological dependence, materialism, Cartesian dualism) have operated on the premise that you can’t separate mind from heart from body when it comes to health. The ancient Hebrews, Chinese, Aristotle and our Last Frontier first peoples knew that.

By Unknown or not provided - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

In our incredibly diverse population (the Anchorage School District boasts over 100 languages spoken in its halls) I’ve had the privilege of working with Inupiaq, Y’upik, Aleut and Aluutiq, Athabascan, Tlingit, and Haida peoples. Among my colleagues are Traditional Healers whom the Alaska Native Tribal Healthcare Consortium have supported in a long-overdue resurrection of truly holistic healthcare, incorporating counseling, prayer, community fellowship and other culture-specific practices that are met with increasing demand and endorsement. Of note, mirroring the Western/allopathic census, the most common presenting complaints involve pain (53% in 2015) followed by behavioral health issues (20%) [3]. While I don’t have comparative outcomes data, anecdotally I can attest that those who pursue whole-person wellness thrive compared to those who simply react to physical symptoms and seek a quick, unidimensional ‘fix’.

Get Ready for Winter.

With half the year disproportionately cold, dark and devoid of natural resources, preparation is critical for survival. Granted, McDonald’s and WalMart in our metropoli, such as they are (there are 360,000 in our three biggest cities of Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks) have eroded some of our traditional values in more ways than one, but many still cherish and adhere to a subsistence lifestyle. Respecting and adapting to the land, ocean and atmosphere, the seasons, and the migratory patterns of fauna are essential to life, let alone a good one.

By Nowell, Frank H., 1864-1950, photographer - Library of CongressCatalog: download: url:, Public Domain,

Aligning our pursuits of biopsychosocial-spiritual health and wellness early in the spring and summer of life (even autumn isn’t too late) are key to preventing illness and chronic pain. There’s no other way to say it – if we humans don’t actively prepare, Mother Nature won’t show mercy. That’s as true of pain as anything in this life.

Pull Your Weight.

And that leads me to my final thought in this introductory installation. The Frontier favors a self-reliant people. That’s not to say we don’t value community – on the contrary, without a good sled dog team, fishing vessel or drilling rig crew we wouldn’t see many winters. But everyone has to contribute.

To appeal to the National Pain Strategy again (and consensus common medical sense for millennia) we need to be instilling a sense of responsibility in prevention and management, and cultivating self-efficacy and internal locus of control. Best practice in life including healthcare must respect the individual and their choices (and those choices’ consequences) while not facilitating self-destructiveness. Hydrocodone isn’t the answer for dietary indiscretion and joint pain, nor Ambien for a pot of coffee every day and poor sleep hygiene.

And really that aligns with justice, non-maleficence, beneficence… not to mention autonomy. If we’re to benefit the individual and the community, we as providers (just like parents, teachers, coaches, managers) must lead our patients – especially those sidelined and confused by chronic pain – in rediscovering, or learning for the first time that their outcome is directly proportional to their ownership.

We’ve seen all these things work, and I look forward to exploring these topics and more from a pragmatic pain management standpoint with you. (Oh, and the poultice temperature depends of course on whether it's a polar bear or a brown bear bite.)

-Heath McAnally, MD, MSPH

25 Aug 2018


Content on is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.


1. Joffe-Walt C. Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America. National Public Radio: Planet Money; March 22, 2013.

2. Gaskin DJ, Richard P. The Economic Costs of Pain in the United States. In: Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care, and Education. Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011. Appendix C.

3. Southcentral Foundation. Emotional and Spiritual Aspects of Care: Traditional Healing at Southcentral Foundation.

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