Pain is an unpleasant sensation. It occurs when a signal travels through our bodies’ nerve fibers to our brains for interpretation. The experience of pain is different for every person, and there are various ways to feel and describe pain. It can be an emotional experience for some people. This variation in experience can make it challenging to define and treat pain for patients.

Now, imagine the difficulties a pain management doctor may have to face daily in the treatment of his/her patients. It is not an easy task trying to help manage or kill the pain that each patient faces every day.

How might such form of work affect a doctor’s views when looking at issues of health and wellness? In this issue of Prime, we speak to The Anaesthesia and Pain Practice Founder Dr Daniel Phang about his views on such matters

Good morning, Dr Phang. Thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule for this interview. Let us start with the question we always pose to our interviewees from the get-go: What do the words “health” and “wellness” mean to you?

Dr Daniel Phang: To me, being healthy is more of a physical impression. A healthy person has strength and energy to get through obstacles in life. It is about having an exercise regimen, and no debilitating illness or disease. Wellness has always had more of a psychological ring to me. To me, it implies a state of well-being. A person may not be in the greatest state of health, but he may have a good level of wellness due to a positive outlook in life.

These ideas about health and wellness did not occur naturally to me. I was never health conscious, but the education system here and my time during National Service impressed upon me the idea that being physically weak can bring certain disadvantages. For example, I found myself tiring more easily than others and I did not like that. Therefore, I decided to put in time to exercise, knowing that I was the “runt of the pack”.

Do you now consider yourself to have a healthy lifestyle? It cannot be easy balancing between health and work.

DP: Self-perceptions about health can be misleading! I do put in my hours of physical activity, but embarking on diets for weight loss is always difficult for me due to family/social gatherings. While my family and friends may get used to my dietary restrictions, I always feel that these individual dietary choices can impose unnecessary constraints on other people.

In terms of exercise, I do not always maintain a conscious balance between work and health! On exhausting days, it can be really tough to start any form of exercise. I suppose setting a goal is always good and helpful. For example, having a goal to run a certain distance within a certain time frame. Thus, I have gradually moved away from routine gym exercises because I find lifting weights to be extremely boring!

What are some things that you think we can learn from other countries?

DP: Well, there are many things that we can learn from overseas, but there are also plenty of things we should not follow. For example, there is something I noticed recently about the menus of a certain country’s cuisine: the calorie count is listed in every menu and every dish has no less than 1,500kcal. Eating such rich food at every meal will make our physical health goals more difficult to achieve. However, for those who enjoy eating, their wellness quotient will certainly go up!

Do you pay much attention to what you eat?

DP: Selective food intake is not something I enforce actively. I dislike feeling bloated after eating oily and fried food, so I naturally avoid these kinds of food. I also do not like alcohol so my social drinking is restricted to consuming loads of caffeine. However, as with most people, I do have my weaknesses – in my case, I love bubble tea and ice cream!

Have you never tried specific diets?

DP: I once tried a low carbohydrate diet on the instructions of a gym I attended many years ago. I decided to go with their orders since I had already paid for their services. While I saw results, the constant focus on body fat percentage (which is not good for self-esteem), the hours spent looking for appropriate food, the time spent away from my family, the inconvenience caused and the extra costs (such food items can be expensive!) helped ease my decision to depart from the diet. Also, I was becoming skeptical that eating in such a way was actually healthy.

Since then, I have not tried another specific diet. Now my philosophy is simple: More energy expended than food taken in. While it may not sound as disciplined or sophisticated, it is actually a good balance.

Do your family members emphasize healthy eating?

DP: My family does place emphasis on healthy eating. They really help me with my fibre intake as I absolutely abhor vegetables! While I do not actively enforce healthy eating on myself, I think it is necessary to be aware that children naturally follow their parents’ examples. We also have to exercise some control over their food intake. This is especially so as it is natural for doting grandparents to just give in to their grandchildren’s cravings, and ply them with their favourite snacks and food.

Let’s cycle back to the topic of exercise. You mentioned right at the start that while you do certain activities, you are still not able to always find balance between work and health. Tell us more about that.

DP: I do general bodyweight training or calisthenics. These days, my work schedule prevents me from committing to any forms of group activity as I end up having to cancel most times. Before the pandemic, I used to play quite a bit of casual football with my friends. That is no longer the case. Now, I try to put in time to exercise every day. That is true even on the most exhausting and tiring of days, when a few pushups may give me the illusion I have done something really healthy! This is always good for mental wellness, right?

Does your family engage in exercises with you?

DP: I exercise alone. My family likes running less than me and understandably so. Nobody likes feeling sweaty and breathless after a long exhausting run. However, I do occasionally challenge my children to find time to engage in physical activity. Engaging children in activities they enjoy, be it football, martial arts or other sports, is essential to maintaining their interest in staying healthy.

Moving on, how much rest do you get daily? And how do you cope with life’s stresses?

DP: I sleep an average of 4 to 5 hours a day. While it is not ideal, I simply cut back on physical exercise because I know when I am tired, the body is more prone to injury anyway. Otherwise, I take occasional naps over the weekend if the week has been particularly busy.

I have to confess and say that my work can be quite stressful! But I suppose after seeing critical resuscitation situations, one tends to become more easy-going with other stresses in life. Thus, if there is no critically ill patient in a stressful situation, then there is really no need to be stressed about other things.

Family. It must help to go back to a loving family after work each day to relieve these stresses.

DP: At the end of a busy day, it always warms my heart to go home to an enthusiastic welcome. The family environment certainly is crucial in building up (or tearing down) mental health as we face each other at our most personal hours.

What do you think are some of the challenges that modern life poses to health?

DP: I feel that the perceived challenges in modern life has always been present in society. Various expectations, societal pressures, financial stresses, etc. These have plagued every one of us since the beginning of time. The big difference is that we have better technology now. I know that technology makes life better in many ways. On the flip side, it also creates new stresses. The increasing pace of life adds more demands on us physically and mentally.

In your line of work, what aspects of health do you often see people neglecting?

DP: Both physical and mental aspects. When a person suffers chronic pain, they tend to become less active. The duration of suffering compounds the mental anguish they face due to family and work stresses. That is why I encourage my patients to continue to be active where possible. The mobility gives them a sense of well-being and empowers them to take ownership of their condition.

Do you think COVID-19 has changed the way people view and value health?

DP: COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways, including the way we have to visit gyms and other exercise areas! So yes, I am sure it has changed how we view and value health.

Finally, what advice do you have for people who want to stay healthy?

DP: It is about taking that first step and keeping at the grind of being active regularly. Having goals may help, but you have to buy into those goals. Not everyone will feel the same satisfaction from doing 10 chin-ups or running faster in their 2.4km run. Most of all, do not believe everything the “fitness gurus” tell you on social media! The facade of “wanting/needing to be perfect” will discourage you!