Chronic pain is endemic in Australia

A disturbingly high number of older Australians who live with chronic pain are not recieving treatment for their condition.

By Yasmin Noone

Almost two million older Australians who live with excruciating levels of chronic pain are not receiving treatment for their condition, and as a result are suffering unnecessarily in silence each and every day.

Chronic Pain Australia (CPA) estimates that, throughout the country, there are around eight million “forgotten” people who live with extreme pain each day and around 80 per cent of this figure is currently missing out on treatment.

Yet according to the Pfizer Health Report on Chronic Pain, released earlier this year, almost 30 per cent of Australia’s chronic pain sufferers are adults aged over 66 years (see AAA article).  

President of CPA, Dr Coralie Wales, warned that chronic pain is now “endemic” in Australia. Unfortuently however, the medical profession and the community is yet to fully grasp the true extent of the issue and realise the “heartrending consequences it can have on people’s lives”.

“Pain is not a symptom but a condition in its own right, one that doctors have only come to recognise,” Dr Wales said. 

“Acute pain is definitely a symptom but once you get chronic pain and the original disease has resolved, you have to say that pain exists in its own right. …Although few people die of pain, many people die in pain and even more live in pain.”

The under-treatment of chronic pain in residential aged care, according to Dr Wales, presents a very “scary” situation.

She said this is partly because aged care residents with dementia, who experience communication difficulties, are less likely to articulate how they feel and are therefore less likely to receive treatment.

What’s more, she said, aged care staff often use psychotropic medicine as a “behaviour management tool” because they do not think to check to see whether chronic pain is actually the cause of the resident’s bad behaviour.

“I have it on good academic and research authority that what happens with people living in aged care is that, if the resident is difficult then the first line of treatment [or action] is psychotropic medicines.

“[Psychotropic drugs] calms people down because it zombies them.

“Yet, addressing a resident’s pain could be done simply by putting an opiate patch on their shoulder.”

Of course, she said, this tragic situation is not the fault of facility staff.

“Aged care staff mean well,” Dr Wales said. “But, what you have are care assistants and other aged care staff who are expected to treat people who are in pain, “who are not necessarily trained to manage pain. And if you don’t have the training or resources to deal with chronic pain, you become overwhelmed with the problem. 

“…To be blunt, [the problem] has to do with the numbers of registered nurses. Quite often, aged care facilities don’t have enough trained health professionals available to the number of residents to identify that there is a pain problem.”

CPA states that chronic pain costs the Australian economy more than $34 billion each year and that it is the nation’s third most costly health issue.

“If we don’t do something about chronic pain now, the problem will become so huge and the cost of dealing with this sort of thing will become phenomenal.

“We are fueling more problems by not dealing with the issue.

“…We need systemic change. The research is out there. Now we just need to enlarge the research and do something with the results.”

National Pain Week, the country’s first ever national campaign to address the health problem, was launched by CPA earlier this week in an effort to reach out to the millions of Australians living each day with pain.

“The community’s understanding of and response to chronic pain is similar to where depression and other mental health conditions were 20 years ago,” she said.

“People who live with pain carry an extra burden. They are often stigmatised, isolated, suffer depression and feel others don’t understand their condition.

“National Pain Week is about breaking the silence. We want people to feel they are not alone, there is help, and importantly someone who will listen.”

Dr Wales said the National Pain Week campaign aims to target three main target groups: government, health and aged care staff, and people in the broader community living with chronic pain.

“To the government – CPA is here and we are happy to talk about [solutions] and engage in a conversation.

“…To health professionals – the more you know about pain, the more creative the solution you can find to deal with the pain…If you [try to] find out about the person behind the pain, the easier your work will be even if it does take a bit of time to do so in the beginning.

“To the community – by connecting with other people around you who care about you, you can actually reduce the chemistry of pain.

“Connecting with others makes a huge difference. It reduces that isolation and could keep you out of trouble.

“And [if you need help], contact us. We are here for people in pain, no matter what age or where you are.”

For support, advice and referral, people with chronic pain should contact Chronic Pain Australia. Call 1800 218 921 or visit their website by clicking here.


Tags: chronic, chronic-pain, chronic-pain-australia, dementia, dr-coralie-wales, national-pain-week, older-people, pain, pfizer-health-report-on-chronic-pain,

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