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Turning the tide on Australia’s invisible chronic pain epidemic


Chronic pain has reached epidemic proportions in Australia, quietly impacting 1 in 5 people across all demographics.

“It affects one in five Australians and is considered to be ‘high impact’ (interfering with function) in half of them, i.e. 10 of population,” explains Professor Paul Glare, a leading expert in pain management.

This invisible crisis is estimated to cost the Australian economy around $70 billion per year.

He added that women are more affected than men, with CALD and ATSI being underserved.

“About 1/3 of pain is “primary pain” with no provable underlying cause. Fibromyalgia, back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine are examples. The other 2/3 have pain from a disease such as arthritis or neuropathy, but optimal treatment of the disease is not controlling the pain,” Prof. Glare said.

Related: Chronic pain: The hidden health crisis impacting millions of Australians

Despite its prevalence, misunderstandings about chronic pain continue to persist. “A lot of patients think chronic pain is a prolonged version of acute pain, and there must be a fixable cause for their chronic pain that no one has discovered yet,” says Prof. Glare. Sufferers often face stigma and accusations of “whinging” when dealing with persistent symptoms. 

According to Prof. Glare, successfully managing chronic pain requires a holistic approach accounting for psychological and social factors, not just physical symptoms. “Our feelings, thoughts, beliefs and actions are important in chronic pain and need to be evaluated,” he emphasised.

“Unhelpful types include: we might avoid moving (it hurts, and frightened might be doing more harm) and this leads to becoming physical deteriorated, overweight etc; we might lose our confidence to do things because of pain; we might spend the whole time thinking about pain and worrying what we will do if it gets worse.”

These thoughts and behaviours could lead to depression, frustration, anger and poor sleep.

Fortunately, innovations in research and technology provide new hope. “We get them to stretch; we get them to set some goals and then gradually increase their activity towards these goals,” Prof. Glare said regarding lifestyle strategies to empower patients. Telehealth now allows effective delivery of holistic pain management remotely. And new technologies like biofeedback and virtual reality are being used for psychological components of treatment. 

While chronic pain remains difficult to treat, a multifaceted approach shows promise in improving quality of life even in severe cases. “The holistic approach can be delivered by telehealth equally effectively in general,” Prof. Glare affirmed. By accounting for the invisible factors impacting sufferers, researchers and clinicians may finally turn the tide on this silent epidemic.

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