PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Chronic pain affects tens of millions of Americans -- and costs more than 600-billion dollars a year in medical treatment and lost productivity.

Hundreds of thousands of Mainers are being prescribed opioids for pain after surgery or for cancer. But it's estimated 16-thousand use opioids for chronic pain.

A program at Mercy Hospital is helping shift chronic pain patients off pain killers and toward behavioral therapy with a new approach.

Walking the halls of Mercy Hospital -- Melanie Meserve is taking a big step toward managing her pain without opioids -- because simply she has to.

'I am afraid I will never get better outright, I can't go back to work which really bums out because I really like to work,' said Melanie Meserve.

Meserve has Spondilolistthesis. A spinal disorder that causes the vertebra to slip. Meserve didn't get diagnosed until she was an adult but suffered from bad knees and back pain since she was a young girl.

managing that pain means taking as many as six Vicodin a day.

'It's a bad drug but it does help with the pain, I don't like it because I am afraid it's going to hurt me more than help me.'

That's how the young mother ended up at the Living Life Well Pain Rehabilitation program. It's a 12-week, group-based program that helps people learn ways to cope with chronic pain without taking opioids. Weaning off the painkillers starts right away.

Medical director Dr. Stephen Hull says opioids can be effective for acute pain, but can make chronic pain worse.

'It's very easy to go to the medicine cabinet and take a pill. If it works the tendency is to continue to do that but what is happening is that you are sensitizing the nervous system between doses and when you get to your next dose you are having worse pain than you if weren't on the opioids,' said Dr. Stephen Hull, the program's medical director.

The program combines multiple strategies: behavioral therapy, medication management, and physical exercise. Patients start with a full evaluation to find out what their pain levels is.

Merserve and other patients also talk about the emotions their pain triggers -- And learn how to shift their focus from pain to positive things like hobbies, activities and relationships. Patients also attend exercise classes twice a week. There are no conditioning goals -- instead they are taught how to differentiate hurt from harm ...and when there is pain it's normal to stop whatever is causing it.

The program which started more than 3 years ago has graduated 220 students. 40 percent of the group were on opioids when they started the program -- half of that number had weaned off of pain killers by the time they graduated. Also, an additional 25 percent had significant decreased in their dosages. Merserve knows she has a long journey ahead but she is determined to not let pain dominate her life.