When you envision treating chronic pain, do you immediately think of pain medicines in a bottle? The conditioning to view pain medication as the first line of defense against chronic pain is unique to the United States. Other countries approach pain management quite differently, and we can learn a lot by studying chronic pain treatment around the world.
The perception of chronic pain
One of the most revealing discoveries about chronic pain management is the perception of chronic pain in the United States versus other countries. A 2017 study revealed that 1/3 of Americans feel pain “very often” or “often.” In contrast, just 11% of people in South America and the Philippines feel pain that often.
The frequency of chronic pain in the United States may be related to a few different factors, including:
- obesity: This condition can lead to and aggravate chronic pain. Americans have a higher rate of obesity than those in other countries.
- increased consumption of painkillers: This can also contribute to chronic pain issues.
- mental health challenges: Conditions such as depression can make chronic pain symptoms worse.
Chronic pain treatment around the world
In addition to the amount of chronic pain that people report, people in different countries actually view the idea of pain differently. For instance, in South Africa, pain is seen as a sign of weakness. But in China, pain is often seen as something that is meant to be endured.
A society’s beliefs can shape how its citizens think of pain. This can affect the actions they will take in an attempt to relieve it. People in South Africa or China may not report pain to their doctors until it has become too severe due to these beliefs. This can change the treatment options available.
Access to healthcare
In many countries, chronic pain patients may have better access to pain relief and health care than U.S. citizens have. Places such as Canada, Switzerland, and Singapore offer universal health care. This helps to remove barriers for chronic pain patients who wish to seek medical treatment.
In the United States, access to chronic pain management is contingent on a number of factors. This includes health insurance. But even with health insurance, patients still need to be able to cover copays, out of pocket costs, and prescription costs.
Patients with chronic pain may put off treatment. This is especially true if they don’t have health insurance or if they don’t have the funds to cover costs. But even with health insurance, some potentially helpful treatments such as osteopathic treatments or acupuncture may not be covered. This puts a barrier between patients and the medical care they need.
Learn more about chronic pain treatments around the world here:
Effective treatments for chronic pain
The methods used to address chronic pain differ from country to country. In the United States, we tend to turn to opioids first. In fact, the United States consumes about 80% of the global opioid supply.
One opioid – hydrocodone – is widely used in the United States. Americans consume about 99% of its supply. Unfortunately, opioid use has resulted in enough deaths to be considered an epidemic. This crisis is lead by issues such as:
- doctors prescribing opioids without explaining side effects
- significant addiction risk of opioids
- patients receiving opioids in situations where their use isn’t warranted
Chronic pain treatment around the world differs though. Throughout Europe, specialists prescribe opioids and tighter regulations restrict their use. Opioids are largely only used to treat cancer pain. But here in the United States, opioids are used for both cancer pain and non-cancer long-term pain.
Instead of turning to opioids or pain medication for pain management, other countries are more likely to use other management techniques. In Japan, concerns over pain medication addiction mean that alternative treatments are often used, including massage and acupressure. And in traditional Chinese medical care, lifestyle changes and acupuncture are often incorporated when treating chronic pain.
Europe also incorporates complementary and alternative medicine for pain management. National health care systems reimburse these approaches when administered through a patient’s primary care. Treatments such as massage therapy and physical therapy are frequently used. This combination can lead to an increased quality of life for pain patients.
While alternative techniques can be well-paired with traditional medicine, regulation for natural health practitioners is also important. This arrangement prompts regular communication between patients, traditional doctors and natural health practitioners.
The United States can learn a lot about effective chronic pain management by looking at how other countries treat pain. Various factors have led to the current approach toward pain, including our lack of universal health care and oft-prescribed opioids.
The fact that the opioid crisis is so rampant in the United States highlights the need to find alternative chronic pain treatments. While many other countries are able to use more holistic treatments like massage or acupuncture to complement traditional medicine, that remains a challenge here in America.
Until health insurance companies cover more alternative treatments or universal health care is established, accessing a variety of pain management techniques will remain a challenge for patients. This is especially true for those who have limited financial reserves. Secure and open access to health care will allow patients to seek treatment for pain sooner and give them more options for treatment.
One of the greatest challenges in pain management is that a technique that works for one patient won’t necessarily work for another. There is no one size fits all approach that can be applied to chronic pain. However, we can learn from the effective approaches that succeed in other countries and work to implement them here in the United States.
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