The tip of the iceberg

More older Australians live with chronic pain than what we think. And more also committ suicide as a result, an expert has warned.

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.

For crisis support, suicide prevention and mental health support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or click here.

To access support and information from Chronic Pain Australia, call 1800 218 921.

Tags: aged-care, chronic-pain, chronic-pain-australia, coralie-wales, national-pain-strategy, national-pain-week, pfizer-health-report, suicide,

12 thoughts on “The tip of the iceberg

  1. Coralie Wiles you cannot be that naive surely?
    Many nursing patients are drugged to the eyeballs and that is not medication they are stealing from another patient or someone else is giving them. It is medication they are prescribed by a Doctor.

    As for doing post mortem’s what would that prove? That someone was taking a coktail of drugs that were lethal? Surely you jest?

    There are people walking around and driving vehicles who are pilled to the eyeballs on
    multi-medications all prescribed. Pain Management has become drugs and more drugs. What about the people who can no longer stomach presribed medications and are in chronic pain? Wouldn’t you and your team be better off seeking a solution for those people of which there are many.

    Drugs are not the answer to every problem and sometimes the quick fix is not the answer.


  3. I live in a city where there is no pain management specialist at all. GP’s prescribe pill after pill after combinations of pills, and drug people to death, but will not offer alternative therapies…. OMG – they are not government approved…… but the drugs are!

  4. I am shocked that so many people are suffering chronic pain! I am 81 and have back pain and sciatica, but I also have osteoporosis…so I have taken my pain for granted (with occasional paracetemol!, but younger people, who will be working up to late retirement, need help ASAP. The government should research pain management and causes of chronic pain to a greater extent! Chronic pain like mine is bearable, just a nuisance, but I have friends in nursing and their pain is work related and they are just told to take care, don’t lift on your own…sometimes work related injury is not really evident until much later! I hope that this organisation can help.

  5. This kind of information has been common knowledge for decades. So much for our experts and health professionals and of course the government.

  6. longevity – that most people seem to crave so much – comes with a high price to pay.
    I am 50 and I’d rather go out with a bang – at a time where I am fit and reasonably well.
    I have worked as an RN in Aged Care Facilities and in the Community and have absolutely no desire to experience what most elderly go through.
    Bring on euthanasia, stop being so scientifically obsessed with prolonging life.

  7. 1.Pain killers do not cure the complaint.2.Over several years I have had an increase the number of medications prescribed.Each time I start taking a new drug I feel more unwell.I suspect that there has been little ,if any,research done on effects of taking multiple drugs.3.Perhaps I should not complain ,as I may have died earlier if I had not taken any drugs at all.

  8. I know someone who works in a dementia hospital and it brings here to tears that many of the residents are obviously in a LOT of pain but they don’t get pain relief. Some residents who break bones are only given panadol by the visiting doctors – that is all the treatment they receive. It is horrible. Cost cutting never brings good results.

    Chronic pain management is so undervalued by many that it is a shame on our country.

  9. I have constant pain from a variety of sources. I am so glad that,right at this moment when I need it, you have given me permission to talk about it.The people around me just do not want me to hear about it. I am regarded as a hypochondriac ‘wanting attention” or someone who does not want to socialise for some psychiatrict or anti-social reason.Many of my neighbours in my retirement village tell me I should make an effort to “get out more” but they can’t see the pain when I am attempting to talk/listen with a screaming migraine that any noise exacerbates.I have an illness(ME)that even some doctors don’t understand and dismiss as psychosomatic. I found that when I had Breast Cancer I got a lot more sympathy but only if I did not talk about the illness. It is a big conversation-stopper.
    One person I know had been telling the Dr. about chronic stomach pain for years only to be told that old people can expect to get pain. Now he has been diagnosed with an advanced cancer that could have been found and treated long ago. Same thing happened with a friend who had hip pain and was just told “old people get pain”. Now, after a relative took her to a different doctor she has had a hip replacement and is pain free.
    I often experience such severe pain that I am bedbound,but no one asks where I have been for the last few days or if I am OK.It seems that they are too frightened to let the subject come to consciousness.I get the old “cheer up, lots of people are worse” treatment.
    I don’t know what the answer is but taking pain seriously and acknowledging it is very important. Giving people panadol for severe pain sure does not help. When it does not work people are made to feel guilty or inadequate, which makes the pain worse.
    I,too,think it is better to stop the cause of the pain but while waiting for this miracle to occur(or not)the meds help, but I do not want psychotropic drugs that interfere with any conscious interactions I still have with life.
    Perhaps I now need to join your organisation.
    Good on you for speaking up; a lot of people really just want us to go away and suffer(or die) as quietly as possible!

  10. I was 26 when i was injured in the workplace with a lower back injury i have been a chronic pain injury patient ever since i am 47 now
    i was at first treated like a drug addict by medical profesionals because of my seeking serious pain relief, i was even turned away at a hospital
    i was denied workers comp by allianz because they said i was injured in a car accident and had to prove i wasnt, ive been left to rot ever since.
    i was put on psychological medication for about 8 years which made me sleep a lot , and i guess for the medical profession, out of sight out of mind.
    i am in chronic pain everyday. everyday is a struggle i dont have much of a life anymore, i suffer in silence. i take huge amounts of panadol every day to help with the pain and headaches, i can no longer take aspirin because i now have a stomach ulcer which i take medication for.
    i used to be one the best workers in almost every place i have worked and was only injured because i tried so hard at a new job i had just got at pacific dunlop batteries elizabeth. no one cared they just called me a liar

  11. Congratulations are due to Coralie for bringing these matters to the attention of the public. She is one of the few people in Australia who has fully understood the reality that people in pain have been effectively disenfranchised in our society, and denied a voice mainly because we have come to adopt the body/mind either/or frame of reference when we think about the issue of chronic pain. If you cannot produce a “lesion” to explain your pain, it either does not exist or it is solely a mental problem (“all in the mind”).

    In my view (as a physician in Rheumatology and Pain Medicine), chronic pain is much more than a distinct medical condition, and recent well meaning attempts to reduce it to a disease-in-its-own right may not be in the best interests of sufferers, particularly when Workers’ compensation systems in Australia have skillfully denied the reality of pain as an assessable “impairment” whilst, on the other hand, using self-reported “disability” as a surrogate for psychiatric and psychological “impairment”.

    I commend Coralie’s brave fight. May many others join her in this noble task.

  12. The plan wont work. The health care industrys deeply ingrained culture prejudices them toward people in pain. Furthermore they heave too few solutions for people in pain and little desire to go beyond there many limitations. Only transformation or a totally new system of health care holds hope for people in pain

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