Pain is Undertreated: Many Americans Aren’t Getting Relief

Pain Pills

You’ve probably heard the stat: Some 76 million Americans are dealing with persistent pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a shocking number by any measure.

There is an inordinate number of people out there with chronic pain, agrees Scott Fishman, M.D., chief of pain medicine at the University of California at Davis. But here’s the truly unbelievable part: A lot of them are suffering needlessly.

Hard numbers aren’t easy to come by, but two surveys, one done in 1998 and one in 2004, indicated that at least 30 percent of those with moderate pain and more than half of people with severe pain, don’t get adequate relief. Research shows, too, that 50 percent to 75 percent of cancer patients who die do so in moderate to severe pain, despite the availability of treatments to alleviate most of their discomfort.

But even those numbers can’t really give a true picture since there’s little very recent or current research looking at the size of the problem of undertreated or untreated pain. We have an undertreatment problem, if not a crisis, says Fishman.

So the next question has to be why? Americans enjoy one of the most advanced (if flawed) healthcare systems in the world and, with nearly one-quarter of us hurting regularly, it’s not as if pain is an unusual phenomenon. In fact, it could hardly be more common: persistent pain affects more people than heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined.

Not surprisingly, it’s also the number-one reason we see a doctor or head for the hospital. We know that pain is the primary reason that people initiate treatment within the healthcare system, says Aaron Gilson, Ph.D., director of the U.S. Program at the Pain and Policy Studies Group at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, at Madison.

But even when patients do see health professionals, needless suffering may continue. Like most big problems, this one doesn’t have a simple explanation either. The reasons for undertreatment of chronic pain are multi-factorial, Gilson says simply.

There’s also more than one villain; doctors and other healthcare providers, patients and their families and insurance companies can all take on some of the blame.

Read on for our in-depth look at why, too often, pain isn’t adequately treated in the U.S., and how you can combat each of these five factors to ensure you get the relief you need and deserve.

Reason #1: Doctors don’t know how to deal with difficult-to-treat pain 

What you can do: Working with a pain specialist may be your best bet if you aren’t finding adequate relief with your primary care doctor. But you have to find a specialist first and that may be no easy task. If you can’t find a specialist where you live (start by asking for referrals in your community) but you’re happy with the rest of the care your doctor delivers, do what you can to help bring him up to speed; start, for example, by sharing current research on your meds or your condition.


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