As a pain specialist at the University of Minnesota, Dr. James Fricton believes that people can do a lot more to prevent their own suffering than they realize.
He's spent countless hours teaching his patients, one on one, what they can do to help relieve chronic back pain, headaches, aching jaws and other types of misery.
Now he hopes to reach thousands more with a free online course that starts Jan. 26 on the website Coursera.
Fricton, a professor of dentistry and medicine, created the 10-week MOOC (massive open online course) called "Preventing Chronic Pain: A Human Systems Approach" with two audiences in mind: patients and health professionals.
The first time he offered it, last spring, it was a little heavy on the professional side, he admits, and yet it still drew nearly 24,000 students from 176 nations. This time, he's created separate paths to make it easier for regular folks.
Fricton likes to call chronic pain the "elephant in the room" of health care. "It's the No. 1 reason people go to doctors," he said. By some estimates, it accounts for 25 percent of all health costs — nearly 5 percent of the nation's gross national product.
Medical treatments, he notes, may offer short-term relief. But "there's so much that can be done," he said.
The key, he says, is to address the "risk factors" that contribute to chronic pain: Poor posture. Poor sleep. High heels. Clenched teeth. Sitting too long. "Sitting is really a disaster for back pain and hip pain," he said. "You need to get up and down and move around."
Fricton says he's trying to promote a "whole model of care" that asks more of the patient. The course is designed to teach what he calls "robust self-management" — how yoga, meditation, exercise, eating well and a "good lifestyle" can ease people's pain.
The course comes with a disclaimer: It's not medical advice. It's more a common-sense message, he said, that patients "have much more control over the pain than any treatments we can provide."