Published August 17, 2010
Volume 18, Number 8

Pain Specialist Dr. Richard Shinaman a Leader in the Emerging Field of Pain Medicine  

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Richard Shinaman, M.D., is preoccupied with pain—specifically, with finding ways to alleviate pain and suffering. Currently Director of Pain Medicine and Director of Clinical Research at Pain Medicine Consultants, a five-year-old practice that recently opened a new office at 5924 Stoneridge Drive, Shinaman has spent many years exploring the causes of pain and how to provide pain relief.

“Pain is a major, under-recognized problem in our society,” the doctor remarks. “Chronic pain has the insidious ability to wreak havoc on a person’s life if not treated promptly.” Unfortunately, he notes, there is a social stigma attached to chronic pain, because people who are physically uncomfortable for long periods tend to become withdrawn and stop doing things that they want to do.

For example, people in pain can stop relating to their loved ones in rewarding ways, and they often focus more on their own feelings of pain than anything else. “If severe and unchecked, this process results in a downward spiral that ultimately can cause an individual to have difficulty living a meaningful life,” Shinaman explains. “Everyone with severe, ongoing pain has some degree of frustration or even depression about his or her condition.”

Changing that situation has become his life’s work.

A first-generation physician, Shinaman grew up in Colorado in a “normal” family with one younger brother. He developed strong ties to his natural surroundings, enjoying challenging activities like rock-climbing that put him in the midst of Colorado’s majestic landscapes.

At the same time, he was also an academic striver. He started college at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After his junior year in a study-abroad program at the University of Wollongong in Australia, on the coast just south of Sydney, he decided to get back to his home environment. He transferred to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he continued his interest in the natural sciences, already deepened from his study of Australian biodiversity. Signs of the scholar were evident when, still an undergraduate, he received funding from the National Science Foundation for a project investigating forest dynamics in Southwestern Virginia. Majoring in ecological biology, he earned a B.A. with distinction in 1995.

Shinaman spent the year after college as a special education teacher in the Boulder school system. Influenced by his affinity for outside activity, he designed and implemented several outdoor education programs for physically challenged students.

The following year he started medical school at the University of Colorado in Denver, with the assistance of two prized scholarships. Throughout his four years there he received regular citations for academic excellence and was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha, the exclusive medical school honor society that accepts only the top five percent of students per class.

While in Denver, Shinaman was also busy honing the caring role he sought to play in the broader community. He worked at a Salvation Army clinic for indigents undergoing drug and alcohol rehabilitation, volunteered at a family health center in Honduras, and served as a team leader for a summer camp program for children with cancer. These experiences undoubtedly helped earn him the Best Doctor award in his graduating class.

He also found time to conduct studies on the effects of high altitude in children with respiratory infections and authored a chapter on acute renal failure for a critical care text created at the hospital.

After a transitional internship at Presbyterian/Saint Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, in 2001 Shinaman arrived in California for a three-year residency in anesthesia and critical care at Stanford University Medical School. He had passed through the Bay Area several times in the course of his travels and knew this was ultimately where he wanted to put down roots.

At Stanford he expanded his research scope, delving into the origins of pain in the human body. “Pain usually results from irritation and inflammation of nerves, muscles, bones, or other solid tissue organs,” he points out. His investigations centered on using functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify which areas of the brain process pain and how it is transmitted in the spinal cord, a natural interest for an anesthesiologist. Most important for his future patients, his research explored how to change the brain’s response through treatment, such as procedures and injections.

Once again Shinaman’s forward-thinking work attracted prestigious accolades. As he was finishing his residency in 2004, he received the Department of Anesthesia’s Outstanding Research Award, was recognized as Researcher of the Year by the California Society of Anesthesiologists, and was named a Pfizer National Pain Scholar. He was also featured in an article from the American Society of Anesthesia entitled “Is the End of Pain in Sight?”—a  discussion of groundbreaking technology used to visualize pain transmission.

As his research progressed, Shinaman’s views on treating pain assumed multidisciplinary dimensions. The next step in his quest was a course in medical acupuncture at UCLA Medical School. From that and his other discoveries, he concluded that the most effective approach used a number of combined techniques to produce optimal results. “Patients benefit when individual aspects from the fields of anesthesiology, physical medicine, psychology, internal medicine, and eastern medicine are all brought together,” he reports. “Different things work for different people and different types of pain.”

A pain medicine fellowship brought him to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Az., where he practiced and served on the Anesthesia and Pain Medicine faculty. In 2005 the opportunity to return to California presented itself with the formation of Pain Medicine Consultants with two fellow pain specialists.“The Bay Area has a way of luring you back,” he says. “Even before Stanford, I knew this was the place I wanted to live and set up my practice.”

Over the past five years, along with treating patients, Shinaman has lectured nationally on the use of radio frequency techniques in providing pain relief, as well as further refining his integrative approach. Therapies such as acupuncture, physical therapy, biofeedback, and aerobic exercise can all contribute to helping patients maximize their chances to resume enjoyable pastimes. He encourages patients to take an active role in managing their medical conditions on a variety of fronts, from mood improvement and restful sleep to a healthy diet and regular exercise.

As a frequent prescriber of pain medication, he has also gleaned insight into a mounting social problem: the challenges associated with the use of opioid substances. He became a Drug Enforcement Agency Licensed Detoxification Specialist and now lectures frequently on appropriate prescribing practices to prevent abuse and keep these powerful drugs out of the wider community.

Based in Walnut Creek, the practice used to have satellite offices in San Ramon and Livermore.  Having identified the need for more services in the southern half of the Tri-Valley, in May “we consolidated to a larger site in Pleasanton to offer our patients better access and more clinical time.”

Married for more than 10 years, Shinaman and his wife—a fellow American he met while studying in Australia—are parents of a young daughter. Noting that his opportunities for outdoor recreation are a bit more limited these days, he remains a fan of hiking and climbing and talks enthusiastically about his latest hobby, stand-up paddle surfing. He has also found a new, more sedate way to express his appreciation of the outdoors through landscape photography.

Still, he admits to spending most of his time working. For that, the innumerable patients who have found relief from chronic pain through his efforts will be infinitely grateful. 


Also in this issue ...