It’s the health challenge that affects nearly a third of American adults – more than heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined, according to a recent report. It costs society between $560 billion and $635 billion in medical bills and lost productivity every year. You or someone you love may be directly affected. What is this phantom epidemic? Untreated or under-treated chronic pain.
Approximately 100 million adults live with chronic pain, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). While the causes of chronic pain are as varied as the people who suffer from it, one thing is universal, says Myra Christopher, the Kathleen M. Foley Chair for Pain and Palliative Care at the Center for Practical Bioethics and a member of the committee that developed the IOM report.
‘Society as a whole and the medical community in particular needs to respond to this public health crisis,’ Christopher says. ‘Right now, the average person living with chronic pain sees six or seven doctors over four years before finding relief from their pain. We are capable of improving those numbers, but it will require pervasive change and improved awareness on all fronts to achieve that.’
The Center for Practical Bioethics is a founding member of the Pain Action Alliance to Implement a National Strategy (PAINS), a collaborative effort focused on facilitating the needed changes outlined in the IOM’s report ‘Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education and Research.’ Christopher knows first-hand the devastating, pervasive impact chronic pain can have. Following an injury, she endured years of knee pain before finding relief.
The IOM report highlights one of the greatest challenges those living with chronic pain face: finding comprehensive care. Physicians are often willing to write prescriptions and pain specialists are willing to do nerve blocks, but pain specialists are few and far between, and comprehensive care including things like physical therapy are often not available for patients to manage chronic pain, Christopher says.
Resources like PAINS, the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association and American Chronic Pain Association can help educate patients about how to cope with pain and find a health care provider to meet their needs. Christopher’s advice is personal and to-the-point:
- Be your own advocate – ‘You need to take responsibility for self-advocacy,’ she says. ‘It’s sad to say, but no one in the medical community is going to do this for you. You or a family member must advocate on your behalf.’
- Build a relationship with your doctor – ‘An ongoing relationship with a doctor whom you trust, who believes you and who is open to a holistic pain management approach is essential.’ Your pain may need more than one type of care from more than one provider. But managing all aspects of your pain treatment through one trusted doctor can help ensure continuity of care – and better results. Interview your doctor and clearly express what you’re looking for from your partnership with him or her.
- Do your part – ‘Keep moving, even when it hurts,’ Christopher says. ‘Move as much as you can, even if it’s just walking down the hall twice today, then going outside the front door tomorrow, then maybe walking down the block the next day.’ Self-care, including sleeping well, exercising and eating right, is vital to chronic pain management.
- Never surrender – ‘You absolutely must keep hope,’ Christopher says. ‘Do not give up. Keep a positive attitude and realize that the medical community is working on doing a better job of treating chronic pain, but there’s still a long way to go.’
- Finally – and most importantly – if you or a loved one are living with chronic pain, don’t suffer in silence. ‘Chronic pain is not a form of punishment, and it’s not redemptive,’ Christopher says. ‘You do not deserve to suffer, you have a right to comprehensive pain care and the medical community has a moral imperative to help you. Their job is to prevent pain and suffering.’