Survey Shows Myths, Misunderstanding About Pain Common Among Americans

What is the most common cause of disability in the United States today? The answer is pain, but if you didn’t know, you have plenty of company.

Partners for Understanding Pain, a consortium of more than 50 organizations that have an interest in pain and its effects, commissioned a telephone survey of 1,000 adult Americans in June to raise awareness of the effects of pain on society. The survey showed that most Americans have little understanding of pain and its treatment.

“Knowledge about pain is lacking and misinformation abounds among those living with pain, as well as those in care-giving professions,” said Dr. Daniel Carr, vice chairman of research and medical director for the chronic pain management program at Tufts-New England Medical Center. “The Partners for Understanding Pain survey highlights how misinformed most people are about pain. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents cited something other than pain as being the primary cause of disability in the United States.”

The Impact of Pain

Pain is a serious public health and economic issue. According to statistics, pain touches everyone:

— Pain costs $100 billion annually in lost workdays, medical expenses and other benefit costs (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

— Pain personally affects one in three people (Partners for Understanding Pain survey)

— Pain causes more disability than cancer and heart disease combined (National Medical Association).

“The Partners for Understanding Pain want to raise awareness of both the medical and socioeconomic impacts of pain. Pain and its consequences are issues of unrecognized significance,” said Penney Cowan, executive director of the American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA), which is spearheading Partners for Understanding Pain. “Access to care also is an issue. Skyrocketing health care costs leave some, especially seniors, minorities, and the urban and rural poor, unable to get the help they need to manage their pain.”

Specifically, more than 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain each year, and another 25 million experience acute pain caused by injury or surgery.

“While pain is often a natural response to illness or injury, there are a number of techniques and medications that can help us manage our pain more effectively, which in turn can aid recovery and improve quality of life,” Carr said.

More Training Needed for Physicians

The majority of respondents to the Partners for Understanding Pain survey are confident that their primary care physician can effectively diagnose (79 percent) and treat (83 percent) any pain problem they may have. However, most doctors receive very little training in identifying and treating pain problems among their patients.

“Few medical schools have included formal training in pain and pain management in their curriculum in the past and doctors have not felt well prepared to deal with their patients’ pain,” Carr said. “Pain has been like the elephant in the middle of the room; no one knows exactly what to do about it, so we act as if it isn’t there. Fortunately, this is changing.”

Addiction Fears May Result in Suffering

Fear of addiction is a major concern among survey participants. More than three out of four respondents (78 percent) believe that addiction would be very or somewhat likely when strong pain medication is given to treat pain. In fact, when prescribed for pain problems, most pain medications, including opioids, do not cause the “high” associated with street drug use and rarely cause addiction, according to Carr. Failing to provide appropriate medications to people with cancer, acute or chronic pain can cause unnecessary suffering.

Pain Doesn’t Discriminate

Who is most likely to suffer from chronic pain? Most respondents (43 percent) believed a typical person with ongoing pain is an adult age 65 or older. In fact, anyone can develop chronic pain, and 80 percent of those who have chronic pain are in the adult 24 to 64 age group, according to The Arthritis Foundation.

Is the Pain Real?

The majority of respondents agreed or agreed strongly that people sometimes exaggerate their pain to get drugs (83 percent), avoid work (84 percent) or get attention (86 percent). In fact, few people exaggerate their pain for any reason, Cowan said. However, since pain is an invisible disability, it’s impossible to know how much pain someone is experiencing by observing him or her.

“People sometimes use pain behavior (grimacing, grabbing their backs, groaning) because they fear that their caregivers or families will not believe that their pain is real,” Cowan said. “That’s one reason we convened Partners for Understanding Pain — to open up a dialogue about pain and encourage greater understanding about its impact.”

About Partners for Understanding Pain

Partners for Understanding Pain is a consortium of more than 50 organizations that touch the lives of people with chronic, acute and cancer pain. Each member brings its own perspective to the dialogue and together they represent a comprehensive network of resources and knowledge about issues in pain management. Partners for Understanding Pain, spearheaded by the American Chronic Pain Association, strives to create greater understanding among health care professionals, individuals and families who are struggling with pain management, the business community, legislators and the general public that pain is a serious public health issue.

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