Studies Reveal Chronic Pain Patient Characteristics
The Law Of… understanding chronic pain
With some studies claiming that almost half the adult population in the UK live with chronic pain and tens of millions of working days are lost to pain conditions every year, it is clear that those who suffer from serious ailments such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and back or joint pain make up a significant portion of society.
Despite the widespread nature of chronic pain the condition largely remains outside the public eye, with coverage confined to infrequent stories that report small scale, albeit shocking, figures from occasional impact studies.
This causes understanding of chronic pain to remain low amongst both the wider public and chronic pain sufferers themselves. This lack of understanding can cause a delay in diagnosis as people do not realise that they are suffering from a serious complex pain condition.
The vast majority of the public (63%) admitted that they would wait a couple of days before seeking medical advice about pain, even if the pain was increasing. Just 3% of the population claimed that they would seek immediate medical advice if their level of pain remained the same for a couple of days.
Recent studies have sought to establish some characteristics and a general demography of chronic pain sufferers. Discussing these studies Melanie Burden – Head of Simpson Millar's Personal Injury department and specialist in chronic pain compensation claims – answers some key questions about the debilitating condition.
What Demographics Suffer From Chronic Pain?
While some generalisations have been drawn about certain types of pain conditions, namely that older patients suffer from chronic back pain – especially if their job at a younger age involved heavy lifting – chronic pain sufferers are not a homogeneous group.
Studies show that chronic pain sufferers differ in terms of age, sex, the burden of pain and the health resources they use.
The fact that there no specific demographic is affected by chronic pain highlights the difficultly of the condition, as Melanie outlines:
"One of the most difficult aspects of chronic pain from a treatment perspective is its broad nature and huge scope. Chronic pain patients are not a one size fits all group and even those that share characteristics and even conditions can suffer from vastly differently levels of pain."
"To counteract the broad sense of chronic pain, from a practical perspective, awareness is vital. Chronic pain sufferers themselves, their personal support network, medical professionals, and the wider public need to first realise that absolutely anyone can suffer from chronic pain and the causes and onset of the condition can vary greatly. It is only through this awareness that we can begin to build a coherent response to debilitating pain conditions."
How Are Different Social Groups Affected By Chronic Pain?
Much like patients themselves, the levels of pain suffered by individuals is homogeneous and can vary significantly; despite this, levels of pain and the burden of chronic pain can actually be filtered down and generalised based on patient characterisations and demographics.
Poorer, less educated, older chronic pain patients are more likely to suffer worse levels of pain than their younger, more affluent and better educated counterparts. This has been a trait long established but a recent study highlighted that the disparity of pain levels was a lot worse than first predicted.
The University of Buffalo collected data of 12 years and showed that:
- Levels of pain are rising over time, with people in their 60s today reporting more pain that those of the same age in the late 1990s
- Those with lower levels of education and wealth do not just have more pain, they also suffer more severe pain than those with a better education and more wealth
- Due to their more severe level of pain, people with less wealth and a lower level of education are more likely to suffer disabilities as a result of their chronic pain
While the research was not able to uncover empirical reasoning for the disparity in levels of pain between different social groups Melanie again feels that levels of understanding is a crucial factor:
"While we can only theorise about the reason that certain social groups suffer more severely from their chronic pain than others it could be down to understanding, especially as those with a higher education are more likely to develop a clearer understanding and more in-depth appreciation of their symptoms and how to combat them."
"Similarly, wealthier chronic pain sufferers may have more economic freedom, allowing them to explore alternative treatments and permitting them time to reflect and focus on managing their pain, those in a less stable economic position may find that they do not share this opportunity."
How Does This Information Affect Chronic Pain Treatments?
The broad nature of chronic pain sufferers makes a generalised treatment plan untenable and yet most healthcare providers, both here in the UK and globally, apply a single, over simplified, treatment and push painkillers – particularly powerful opioids – when it comes to treating chronic pain.
While opioids are widely regarded as the most effective and painkillers for certain shorter term pain conditions, such as acute trauma, burns, or pain developed after surgery they are increasingly being proven to have a detrimental effect on chronic pain sufferers.
Some analysis has shown that both tolerance and dependence are common with opioids and many studies have indicated that long term usage can actually worsen pain symptoms.
Even in instances where a combination of painkillers is aiding chronic pain patients it is generally accepted that they work best when combined with other treatments, including physical therapy and counselling. The debate between treating chronic pain with painkillers or physical therapy was highlighted by a recent documentary, which saw a doctor stop prescribing medication and instead suggesting alternative treatments – one participant found some respite from her daily pain by adopting cold water swimming.
While treatments such as physical therapy and meditation are widely accepted to benefit chronic pain patients the aforementioned disparity between sufferers can make these suggestions difficult to implement, as Melanie explains:
"Many of the chronic pain clients that we support find it very difficult to find both the time and the motivation to attempt alternative treatments for their daily pain."
"While studies suggest physical therapies it is important to note the massive psychological effect chronic pain has on sufferers, especially on their motivation and ability to perform daily tasks."
"After getting stuck in the cycle of pain the prospect of physical exertion and attempting anything apart from medication can be daunting, especially as many patients continue to live a full life and have to juggle pain management with full time work and other regular commitments."
"At the same time some chronic pain patients are reporting that they are finding it more difficult to find doctors that will treat their pain, which is hugely concerning considering the fact that it ultimately falls to GPs and pain management centres to map out the best course of treatment for each individual chronic pain sufferer."