Medical Staff Profile: Erik Shaw, D.O.
Q & A with Erik Shaw, D.O., Pain Physiatrist, Shepherd Pain Institute
Q: Why did you become a doctor?
A: My father was a primary care physician, and I hung around his office as a child. So from the time I was 5 or 6 years old, I thought that was what I wanted to do. I studied hard in school. Math and science always piqued my interest, so I paid attention to these things. In college, I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to be a doctor. In the late 1980s with the changes in healthcare, I saw my father in a solo medical practice having a hard time making it. So, I decided to major in both pre-med and bioengineering. After two years of covering the bases with both majors, I decided that I definitely wanted to be a doctor, but I stuck with the bioengineering degree, too. It has helped me visualize things in physical medicine and rehabilitation in 3D. The body is nothing more than an extremely complex and dynamic electrical and mechanical system. Bioengineering helps me understand physical medicine, rehabilitation and pain medicine. I can conceptualize structural things, and that helps me be a good doctor. Now, I’m very aware of utilizing that knowledge when I talk with patients. I think through the process, utilizing my problem-solving skills from a structural basis to help my patients.
Q: Why did you decide to specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM & R, or physiatry)?
A: I thought for a long time about becoming an orthopedic surgeon.Then, as I got into my third year of medical school, I thought I would enjoy physical medicine and rehabilitation. PM & R allows me to help people improve their quality of life. The field is multidisciplinary. I can incorporate my mechanical and structural knowledge with neurology and non-surgical orthopedics as I practice physiatry.
Q: Describe your research in using the pain drug ziconotide for treating pain in patients with MS and other conditions.
A: Ziconotide is a non-narcotic medication derived from the cone snail found in the Philippine Sea. It is a neurotoxin that researchers studied for about 20 years. Hundreds of million dollars later, they discovered it could be delivered intrathecally for pain relief. At the Shepherd Pain Institute, we’ve been using it since August of 2006. Ziconotide can present some challenges. In high doses, it can cause severe side effects, though they are not permanent. Ziconotide can help people feel better, and it’s non-narcotic and thus, not addictive. Every patient is not a candidate for this drug, though. We typically try other treatment modalities first. When we do try it, for example with three patients, I will have one in which it won’t work and two in which it knocks pain out of the park. So it’s a powerful tool in the right people. For the kinds of pain that people with MS have, ziconotide is one of the few medications that are effective and have few side effects. Patients who take ziconotide have to undergo a surgery to get an intrathecal pump implanted (in their abdomen). So, this is not a first course of treatment unless the patient already has a Baclofen pump implanted for spasticity treatment. The pump is then refilled with ziconotide every two to three months in a clinic procedure. Patients can stay on it indefinitely, and they don’t develop a tolerance to it. Plus, there are no long-term side effects.
Q: What is distinctive about the Shepherd Pain Institute’s approach to treating chronic pain?
A: We try to take a holistic approach that incorporates physical therapy, psychological counseling and pain medicine. Our goal is to really understand how to make the patient better, not just give them an injection or pills, but help them along in the course of trying to improve their quality of life. Some pain clinics are not as interested in that goal. We approach treatment with a goal and a plan from the beginning.
Interesting Facts: Erik Shaw, D.O.
• Dr. Shaw worked for Lockheed Martin in the Mir Space Station program, traveling back and forth to Moscow, for a year before starting medical school.
• Dr. Shaw likes to exercise, including swimming, biking and lifting weights.
Interviewed by Jane M. Sanders
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.