Patients find effective treatment by drawing, sketching their pain to a doctor

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Sketches by patients suffering pain.

Theresa Whiting knows what it’s like to live with pain. It started at the back of her neck and traveled into her eye.

“I went to the emergency room six times within four months,” Whiting said. “Can’t focus, you’re just all consumed in pain, you don’t know where to put your body.”

The pain kept Whiting from working and from seeing friends and family. Instead, she stayed in bed with an ice pack and a heating pad.

“Many medications did not touch it, because they were giving me migraine medications,” Whiting said.

When a doctor asked Whiting to draw her pain, the situation changed.

“What we found is that when we asked patients to draw their pain, it’s much easier for them to get their point across,” said Lisa Gfrerer, M.D., Ph.D., of Harvard Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Gfrerer studies patient pain sketches. She says the drawings follow patterns that predict whether a patient is a good candidate for surgery or not.

In her study, patients who drew along nerves with pain radiating towards their forehead saw a 73% improvement in their pain after surgery.

But some drew atypical sketches, showing pain along their cheek or jaw, or all over the place. After surgery, they only saw 30% improvement.

“We don’t even offer surgery, because we know they’re probably not going to do well,” Gfrerer said.

After Whiting drew her pain, doctors diagnosed her with occipital neuralgia. She had surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and now lives pain-free.

“Life is back to normal and I feel great,” Whiting said.

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