Legally speaking, any doctor can say they specialize in pain management, chronic pain, back pain, or other areas related to pain. But not all pain specialists are created equal. Some have completed formal training programs called “fellowships” in Pain Medicine. Some have passed specialized examinations testing their knowledge regarding chronic pain evaluation and treatment. But many have not.
In California, the Medical Board issues only one certification: an unrestricted license as a “Physician and Surgeon.” The California Medical Board does not determine if a doctor is qualified to practice any given specialty, however. Instead, “board-certification” is determined by private medical specialty boards.
The gold standard for medical specialty board certification is the American Board of Medical Specialties, which certifies doctors in over 150 different specialties and subspecialties. In Pain Medicine, only a specialist certified by the ABMS can legally advertise themselves as “board-certified” pain specialists in all 50 states. The ABMS has strict standards for this certification, including a special pain examination and a requirement for lifelong ongoing performance assessment and learning. Many pain specialists do not actually have ABMS board certification.
There are several other organizations that claim to be alternative certifying boards. They generally lack authority and are not recognized by the ABMS. Only one, the American Board of Pain Medicine, is recognized anywhere in the US as a legitimate board: its members can legally call themselves board-certified in some states including California. Unlike the ABMS, the ABPM does not require its members to complete pain-specific training in accredited fellowship programs.
When looking for a doctor in any specialty, it is important to find out if the doctor is board-certified, and which medical board certified them. Chronic pain is complex, and I rely on my fellowship-training every day to optimize the care that I provide my patients. I am board-certified under the ABMS in both Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, the highest standard of certification in these fields.