"Zero" pain is not realistic, achievable or desirable.
A patient’s pain score is just one of several measurements of successful chronic pain treatment.
Small reductions in pain are considered major successes if they lead to increased function.
Realistic functional goals should be set collaboratively between the prescriber and patient. Goals and functional status assessments should be used at initiation of chronic opioid use and throughout the course of treatment. The functional status assessment should be conducted using a validated tool and should consider specific patient factors (e.g.: age, pain condition, etc).
Each patient has a unique set of functional milestones. (Fishman, 2007)
The one thing a chronic pain patient understands is that the experience of pain limits the patient from engaging in the basic activities of life, such as working, sleeping, or eating. The patient's foremost objective in visiting the doctor is to make the pain go away (sooner, rather than later). Unfortunately, finding the right treatment regimen is a long-term, sometimes difficult, process. The patient can be discouraged by treatment setbacks in the forms of side effects (excessive sedation) from opioid analgesics or the recurrence of high levels of pain.
Doctors treating chronic pain patients often use quantitative tools to measure patients' treatment progress. But, simple zero-to-ten scales, happy-sad faces, or x's on a drawing of a body may not necessarily offer objective or quantitative information. Different patients have different levels of pain tolerance; one person's "3" is another person's "7." Also, a less-than-candid patient could over-report levels of pain.
Therefore, in addition to the scales and the drawings, the clinician needs to find individualized, objective measures for each pain patient. Pain experts recommend a function-based treatment strategy that focuses on restoring some or all of the pain patient’s normal activities. The clinician should learn what activities a patient has stopped doing as a result of chronic pain and then establish weekly or monthly objectives for restoring these activities using a multi-modal treatment approach. In collaboration with the patient, the clinician can create a scale where the lowest end is the patient's ability to engage in only one of his normal activities - sleeping - and the highest end would be all of his activities - sleeping, eating, working, recreation, etc.
Fishman, MD, Scott M. Responsible Opioid Prescribing: A Physician’s Guide. Washington, DC: Waterford Life Sciences, 2007. pp. 31–44.
Quality Improvement and Care Coordination [PDF - 1.7 MB] – CDC