Where Discovery Creates Hope

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A monthly series:

Where Discovery Creates Hope

Life-altering pain: the power of humility in treating a very humbling disease

During high school in Chicago, Dr. Clarence Shannon had a life changing opportunity - the invitation to attend a math and science summer program for minority students on the East Coast. This experience expanded his horizons on what his own potential was.

Today he is making a difference, not just for patients, but as the medical director of M Health Fairview Clinic for Comprehensive Pain Management, and by training the next generation of students and residents.

Dr. Shannon makes it clear that he owes this journey to a mentor who inspired him as a young high school student to dream bigger.

And it’s that simple humility that makes him such a bright light in the ever so dark world of pain.

Says Dr. Jakub Tolar: “We are all just a hair’s breadth away from destructive pain – pain that can bring any one of us to our knees. Dr. Shannon is exactly the kind of doctor you want in your corner.”

“We need to tap into other parts of our brain and other tools in our toolbox.”

Dr. Shannon is, by training, an anesthesiologist. For some 17 years, he worked at the famed Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, MD.

Pain management is a natural fit for anesthesiologists who, in operating rooms every day, work with such pharmacological tools as nerve blocks.

But drugs, Dr. Shannon is quick to add, are by no means his only tool. In fact, with the rise in opioid addiction, he is focused on finding other ways to help his patients.

Among possibilities: Acupuncture, hypnosis, meditation, physical and psychological therapy, even the simple use of a foam roller for people with excruciating IT band knee problems.

“We all want the doctor to give us a pill that takes care of our problem when maybe what we really need is to get up 15 minutes early and foam roll.”

Patient with mask on

“It’s a change in perception. A change in the way you think. A change in your life.”

One of the biggest challenges in treating pain is that it’s subjective. One person’s three on a pain scale of one to ten can be another person’s six.

That’s why Dr. Shannon focuses more on restoring function, than reducing pain. Especially, he says, because, after years of fighting pain, we need help freeing ourselves from a negative feedback loop.

Dr. Shannon asks patients a simple, but empowering question that puts them on a measurable path to recovery: “What is something that you’d like to do, but can’t?”

Doctor and patient talking

“It’s not one size fits all.”

Every patient is unique – requiring a different tool and maybe even a different set of tools.

But if there are similarities, one is that Dr. Shannon is often his patients’ last resort. And, by then, pain has often wrecked their careers, marriages, families, even sanity.

Dr. Shannon listens carefully to each of their stories, and then, before devising a personalized plan that often includes help from colleagues at the U, his humility comes into play.

He tells them that because of the insidious way pain works its way into not just our minds, but our lives, he can’t do this alone. He’ll need the patient to work every bit as hard in making what he calls a lifestyle change.

“There’s no quick fix. We’re going to unpeel the onion – layer by layer – and eventually get to the core as our relationship evolves.”

Doctor and patient talking

The Science of Pain

Pain starts with input from tissue damage (burns, cuts, bruises), from damage to the nerve system (phantom limb pain, diabetic foot pain), or from the nerves not working correctly (inflammation).
This input is detected by receptors, specialized nerve endings found in skin, muscles and joints, and most of organs in the body.
The input is sent as signals transmitted by nerves through the spinal cord to the brain.
The brain interprets these signals as “pain.” The experience of pain can be affected by thoughts, expectations, pain history, and mood.
The route the signals took lets the brain know where the pain should be felt, and the returning signal from the brain usually tells the body how to respond (enough pain to stay safe, but not enough to overwhelm).
Treatments for pain work to disrupt the pain signals in any part of this sequence. For example, using heat generated by radio waves to target specific nerves and temporarily turn off their ability to send pain signals.
Dr. Clarence Shannon

Dr. Clarence Shannon, IV

University of Minnesota Medical School, Medical director of the M Health Fairview Clinic for Comprehensive Pain Management

Shannon's lifelong mentor – met first in a high school summer program, and then found again in medical school – has shown him how important having someone’s support is to achieving your goals. Shannon says: “Even more than mentoring me, he nurtured me – letting me see some of the possibilities of what my life could be.”

Shannon wants to help his patients find their own possibilities by eliminating the obstacles caused by pain.

Dr. Jakub Tolar

Dr. Jakub Tolar

Dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School

Pain is one of the most difficult things to deal with. I treat some patients with corrosive, profound pain syndromes that prevent them from having a remotely normal life. As a physician, you want to relieve that suffering. Having an expert like Dr. Shannon, who understands the science of pain and can treat it ― not as a symptom, but as the problem itself ― is invaluable. I am glad to have him on my team both as a physician and as a leader.



M Health Fairview Clinic for Comprehensive Pain Management

420 Delaware Street SE | Minneapolis, MN 55455