Above: President of Chronic Pain Australia, Coralie Wales
By Yasmin Noone
A new report has found that one in three older Australians currently experience chronic pain. Alarmingly, a significant proportion of the older population will also commit suicide as a result.
The Pfizer Health Report on Chronic Pain released today, found that around 29 per cent of adults aged 66 and over experience chronic pain.
President of Chronic Pain Australia, Dr Coralie Wales, said that although this figure was accurately obtained it does not represent the true size of the problem, especially in the 80-plus age group.
While older Australians are often too afraid or indifferent to speak up, many health professionals merely accept that age and chronic pain go hand in hand and therefore fail to challenge its existence.
“A lot of people won’t admit to having pain and they don’t want to talk about it,” Dr Wales said.
“[Denial] is almost likely to be a distraction from the pain but it means that people aren’t living as we could then be depriving the community of active, valuable people.
Chronic pain, she said, is consequently also “hugely undertreated’ in the older population.
“And if it is treated, it is often treated with psychotropic medicines because the person is seen as troublesome.
“…In aged care facilities, there’s a problem with [managing] resident’s pain, especially those with dementia. Sometimes they are seen as troublesome and acting up when often their pain is the reason why they are a difficult patient.”
The report found that five per cent of the general population living with the debilitating health complaint had attempted suicide because of their pain and a further 20 per cent had thought about committing suicide.
Dr Wales said that this figure would most likely be higher in the older population.
“If five percent said tried suicide, how many didn’t admit it? This figure is quite high. It really scared me when I read that.
“This research has only just started uncovering the true situation and we still have a lot further to go.
“I think there is a huge and growing problem if you get older and have made the decision that you are not going to live with pain. The only way to find out the true figures is to conduct post-mortems to see who had died with high levels of pain medications [in their system] and the interview loved ones to find out what the person’s mental state was at the time of death.
“We need to do this sort of research and go much deeper, [so that] in the end you can certainly prevent it and people can learn to manage their pain.”
The report also stated that one in three Australians experience chronic pain. This data, Dr Wales commented, is up from past years where it was one in five.
“It’s a really significant problem. We are now expected to work longer until we are older but we need to have a country of productive workers.
“If you could stay healthy and pain free, you could stay in workplace for 20 and 30 years more. That would be good for us as a nation but with this increase in the prevalence of chronic pain, we must [now] consider the consequences and lifestyle issues.
“I think it’s really important that people understand that they play a significant role in another person’s pain. It’s important for health professional who have patients who are more difficult than others to involve the families and to find a way to identify activities that are pleasurable.
Dr Wales has called on the government to implement the National Pain Strategy initiative as policy, providing clear guidance on what health professionals and other aged care workers can do to manage the issue and give it the time that it deserves.
“I know that the federal government is financially challenged at present, which is a shame given the needs of those with chronic pain.
“But funding spent early means less money spent. We usually spend money after the horse has bolted. I do call on the federal government to fund mass media campaigns to help the community understand this problem and to give them an opportunity to take control.
“As the population ages, these problems are only going to get worse, unless we do something about it now.”
National Pain Week will be held from 24 to 30 July 2011. For more information on chronic pain or what the sector can do to raise awareness of the issue, visit Chronic Pain Australia’s website by clicking here.
To access support and information from Chronic Pain Australia, call 1800 218 921.