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Chronic pain frustrates patients, doctors

Doctors often find no cause for chronic pain, a medical mystery that frustrates patients and doctors alike. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.

Tim Connick's problems started when he fell off a ladder and shattered his ankle. Years later, X-rays showed the injury should be healed, but severe, constant pain persisted so much that he contemplated suicide.

"It did eventually get to the point where it [wasn't] worth it anymore," Connick says.

Dr. Edward Covington, who directs the chronic pain program at the Cleveland Clinic, says depression often accompanies chronic pain. 

"Typically, the people that you're dealing with when you're treating this syndrome are people who have spent the last three, four, five years of their lives on the recliner, watching television, dark room, no socialization, no work, no hobbies, no family life, no sex life," says Covington. "Their lives have literally stopped."

Connick says one of his biggest problems was his doctor did not believe he was suffering. 

"He would always say, 'Oh, I don't see any good reason for it. Everything looks OK,'" says Connick.

Dr. Covington says that is all too common. 

"I have had at least two patients in my career who came down with terminal cancer and were pleased," Covington says, "because now they had something that the doctors could see. I've had patients, any number of patients, say, 'I would give anything if I could bleed with this, then people would see it, they would know it's real.'"

Dr. Anne Louise Oaklander, a pain expert at Massachusetts General Hospital, says doctors have trouble treating chronic pain because it remains such a mystery. 

"To see a patient in front of you who appears to be in distress," she says, "particularly if it's severe, who's pleading with you to help, and you don't quite know what to do, this is difficult."

Often doctors find no solutions for chronic pain, but Dr. Oaklander managed to get Tim Connick's pain under control with a device implanted in his abdomen that sends electrical signals to his leg.

"I've got an extra 30 years now that I lost," Connick says.

He's returned from depression to a happy, active life.