Chronic pain is everywhere. We know it affects at least 50 million Americans. We know nearly 20 million of these individuals live with “high-impact pain” or pain that significantly impacts their daily life.
These numbers are staggering, almost too large to even comprehend. While there is some growing recognition around the cost of chronic pain in America, attitudes still linger far behind. Take our word for it, whether it be through email, social media, or phone calls, we often hear from people with chronic pain who are desperate to find the care and support they need.
September is Pain Awareness Month, and this year, the U.S. Pain Foundation is highlighting all the ways #PainCounts. We’ll be sharing a new fact every day on our social media profiles (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) that highlights how widespread chronic pain is and how devastating it can be on someone’s life.
As we kick off the month, let’s address some of the most pressing issues around chronic pain management and care in America.
What is chronic pain?
Chronic pain is pain that persists for most days or every day for six months or more — for some, it can last a lifetime. Chronic pain is different for every person, from the initial underlying cause to what it feels like. Chronic pain burns. It aches. It saps your energy and prevents you from doing the things you want or need to do.
This is different from acute pain, which as the Cleveland Clinic notes, is “pain that comes on suddenly and is caused by something specific.” However, acute pain can become chronic if the pain lingers after six months or once the “cause” of the pain has healed or gone away—yet the pain still remains.
A common frustration
This is where individuals with chronic pain run into a frequent cause of frustration—the underlying cause of the pain may have dissipated, but the pain still lingers or has even spread to other parts of the body, and health care providers either don’t believe the patient or pass the case on.
When you’re in pain and cannot find the medical care you need—or are struggling to even convince people that your pain is real—the silence can be deafening.
As one report highlighted, health care practitioners feel less sympathy, dislike patients more, and suspect deception when there is no clear medical explanation for a patient’s pain.
Unfortunately, people with chronic pain have greatly suffered from this. In a U.S. Pain Foundation survey report, 74% of respondents indicated they have been living with their pain for at least 10 years, with 34% living with it for more than 20 years. Pain also remains one of the leading reasons why American adults seek health care.
Changes in understanding
A recent article in The Guardian by Linda Geddes highlighted a growing base of knowledge around chronic pain that can hopefully push toward better treatment and management in the future.
“Experts are waking up to the idea that chronic pain can occur without any obvious physical injury, or in a completely separate area of the body from the original site of tissue damage,” Geddes writes. “There’s also mounting evidence that seemingly very different pain conditions – chronic headaches, low back pain and jaw pain, say – may share common underlying mechanisms, and that once a person develops one chronic pain condition, they’re predisposed to develop others.”
While a positive step, more needs to be done. Currently, funding for research into the causes of chronic pain and learning more about those with chronic pain is severely underfunded. For example, despite being a major issue facing Americans, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) dedicate less than 2 percent of funding to pain research.
What can be done to help those with chronic pain?
For those not affected by chronic pain, the full impact and consequences of it can be hard to understand. Chronic pain is invisible and even loved ones can fail to understand why it just isn’t getting better, and that’s not to mention the physicians and health care providers who do not receive adequate training in pain management. Shockingly, as of 2018, 96% of medical schools in the United States did not require students to take courses on pain medicine.
This needs to change. Along with more funding and education about pain within the health care system, U.S. Pain recommends the following:
- Greater research into the causes of chronic pain
- Increased focus on collecting population health data among ethnic groups and by location, which have often been neglected
- Health care providers should be trained according to the Report on Pain Management Best Practices, and the report should be promoted to patients and the greater public to increase chronic pain awareness and destigmatization
Along with increased funding and advocacy efforts for people with pain, we ask you to remember the real people behind these numbers. Remember the individuals who have no choice but to do the best they can, who fight for a better quality of care every day, and who deserve more support than they are oftentimes given.
It’s time to make their pain count.