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Chronic pain: The hidden health crisis impacting millions of Australians


Chronic pain affects one in five Australians, cutting across all demographics and age groups. Yet it often goes unrecognised and undiscussed in the broader community.

National Pain Week, held from 25 July to 1 August, represents a crucial opportunity to shed light on the day-to-day struggles of those living with chronic pain.

To learn more, Healthcare  Channel spoke with Pain Foundation Chair Liz Rowell, an advocate for improved support and treatment options. With an extensive background serving on nonprofit boards and working with major brands on social responsibility initiatives, Liz brings a wealth of experience championing critical but overlooked causes.

In this interview, Liz emphasised the sheer scale of chronic pain in Australia.

“One in five Australians live with chronic pain, and of those almost half also suffer from depression and anxiety. This is a huge number of people living with a hidden, debilitating, often devastating condition.”

The combination of physical and mental health challenges associated with chronic pain can lead to profound social isolation. As Liz noted, “Chronic pain affects people across all ages and stages, including children and teenagers, but is more prevalent in regional areas, and amongst older people, and those with a disability.” 

“But look around you, every fifth person you see could suffer from chronic pain.”

There are many complex factors behind the prevalence of chronic pain, from injuries to age-related conditions. To approach this complexity, the Pain Foundation advocates for multidisciplinary management centred on three pillars: 

  1. Drug Discovery Research
    Cannabinoids and pain –  focusing on their role in unlearning pain-associated fear.
    –  The descending pain inhibitory system, in particular the important role of glycine.
  2. Digital Interventions to support patients with pain
    – Text messages to provide psychological support for people with pain who are reducing their reliance on opioids.
    – Digitisation of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy strategies that are used to teach patients pain self-management.
  3. Improving access to care
    – Early identification and intervention in employees at risk of developing chronic pain following non-serious soft tissue injuries in the workplace.
    – A study of community-based care for people who frequently present to emergency departments with chronic pain
    – Pain management digital education to primary care providers (medical and allied health) around the country, so that patients have access to better treatment. 

National Pain Week represents a focal point for these awareness and advocacy efforts, with webinars, panels and other events organised by Chronic Pain Australia. 

But for the Pain Foundation, reducing the impact of chronic pain requires a year-round commitment. As Liz emphasised, “Pain Foundation has been advocating for chronic pain since 1990, so it’s more than just one week for us.”

Pain Foundation supports clinicians and researchers at the Pain Management Research Institute, a joint initiative of the Royal North Shore Hospital and the University of Sydney, and is recognised by the NSW Ministry of Health as the lead centre for pain management education and research in Australia. They also support the Pain Management Research Centre based at RNSH, which provides multi-disciplinary support for people experiencing acute pain, cancer pain and non-cancer chronic pain.

“The Adapt program was developed by our founder Dr Michael J Cousins, and consists of a team of physiotherapists, psychologists, doctors and nurses who work in a coordinated way. ADAPT uses cognitive-behavioural methods to help people in chronic pain to learn effective ways of managing their pain,” Liz said.

Through the leadership of tireless advocates like Liz and the collaborative spirit behind events like National Pain Week, we can build a future where Australians can access the support and treatment they deserve, affirming the fundamental human right of people to live free of chronic pain.

It is only by bringing chronic pain out of the shadows that we can truly address this hidden healthcare crisis.

Watch also: The sandwich generation dilemma: Jane Morrell sheds light on the challenges of balancing care

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Ritchelle is a Content Producer for Healthcare Channel, Australia’s premier resource of information for healthcare.

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