As Australian marks National Pain Week, head of the Australian Pain Management Association Elizabeth Carrigan writes in AAA that persistent pain is one of the greatest healthcare crises in Australia and must be given the same status as other chronic conditions.
Normal, regular pain is our body’s warning signal that something is wrong: it hurts so that we have to take action to fix our body. But persistent, also known as chronic pain is different.
Persistent pain is when the original injury or illness has physically healed, but the nerves are still signalling pain to the central nervous system. It’s a bit like having a car alarm that you can’t turn off.
Persistent pain is more common than you might think. One in five Australians have persistent pain: that’s 3.5 million people. For Aussies aged 65 years and older, these statistics jump to one in three people.
In fact, persistent pain is Australia’s third-most-expensive health problem, costing the country $34 billion each year. That’s the equivalent of Australia buying 113 Airbus A380 aeroplanes, every single year.
Pain in the community
Sadly, there is no cure for persistent pain. However, it can be managed.
Pain-management clinics provide excellent information and resources, but waiting times vary from six months in the Northern Territory to three years in South Australia. This can feel like an eternity when you struggle through each day in constant pain.
From personal experience, I can confidently state that the best way to manage pain is by taking ‘ownership’ of your own treatment. The Australian Pain Management Association (APMA) assists thousands of Australians to do just that.
APMA is a non-profit community organisation which gives people hope that with the right treatment and life skills, their pain will improve and they can start to enjoy life again. We endorse only evidence-based treatment – no ‘miracle cures’ or quackery – and we encourage people to work with a team of medical professionals to develop a pain-management plan. This team typically includes a GP, physiotherapist and psychologist and may include other specialists as well.
When most people think of treatment for pain, they think of painkillers, and these can certainly play a role in your treatment. But physical therapy is also essential, to ensure that your muscles and joints are working correctly and not actually making your pain worse. It may sound discomforting to have to exercise when you’re in pain, but movement is actually good for you and will keep your body strong and healthy and better able to cope with your pain. Persistent pain can be scary, which is why many people include a psychologist in their self-management team.
Yet even with the right medication and regular exercise and counselling, people with persistent pain can still feel isolated. They may believe that no one understands what they’re going through.
This is where our organisation helps.
We run a national Pain Link helpline (1300 340 357) staffed by volunteers who self-manage their own pain and who have completed a Lifeline counselling course. For the cost of a local call, people suffering pain can talk to someone who knows firsthand what they are going through.
APMA also has community pain-support groups in 15 different locations around Australia, with more being added all the time. At the pain-support groups, those living with pain can be supported by other people with persistent pain and pick up practical tips.
Importantly in this digital age, we also have Facebook and Twitter pages with active communities. Essentially, no matter where someone lives in Australia, they’re not alone.
What we still need
Sadly, however, there is a gap between the services that APMA provides in the community, and support from the healthcare system.
I strongly believe that persistent pain must be given the same status as other chronic conditions, such as obesity or diabetes. Recognising persistent pain as a chronic disease in its own right (rather than as a symptom of someone else) will have two major effects.
Firstly, it will prompt doctors to move past looking for a cause of the pain, which has most likely healed, and to focus instead on the current complexity of the ongoing pain. This will enable the doctor to work with the person on developing a pain-management plan, instead of simply prescribing painkillers and ordering further tests. For people with persistent pain, being referred from specialist to specialist, often at great expense and inconvenience, without a diagnosis can be psychologically distressing. An early diagnosis that their pain is a chronic disease will enable them to take ownership of their pain and work through options, before it becomes overwhelming.
Secondly, they will be entitled to free benefits through Medicare, such as longer consultations with their GP and visits to specialists, which will help to ease the pressure from their budget. Persistent pain can be a great financial burden, especially for those who are on a pension, through specialist medical appointments, expensive medication and home aids.
Timely access to community healthcare will better enable millions of Australians to manage their pain and avoid disability and hospitalisation.
I firmly believe that it is unacceptable for the 3.5 million Australians with persistent pain to continue to suffer, when systems are already in place in their communities which can greatly ease their physical, emotional and financial burdens – if only the government will permit them access.
Elizabeth Carrigan is CEO of the APMA. Click here for more information on APMA or call 1300 340 357.
National Pain Week runs until Sunday, 27 July.