Study finds millions suffer with chronic pain

Associated Press / June 30, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Nearly a third of Americans experience long-lasting pain — the kind that lingers for weeks to months — and too often feel stigma rather than relief from a health care system poorly prepared to treat them, the Institute of Medicine said yesterday.

The staggering tab: Chronic pain is costing the nation at least $558 billion a year in medical bills, sick days, and lost productivity, the report found. That’s more than the cost of heart disease, the number one killer.

Many things can trigger lingering pain, including arthritis, cancer, spine problems, digestive disorders, injuries, and surgery. Sometimes, chronic pain can be a disease all its own.

Whatever the cause, effective pain management is “a moral imperative,’’ the report concludes, urging steps to transform the field.

“We’re viewing this as a critical issue,’’ said Dr. Philip Pizzo of Stanford University, who led the months-long probe.

The toll isn’t surprising, said Dr. Doris K. Cope, pain chief at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The population is getting older and less fit, and more survivors of diseases like cancer live for many years with side effects from treatments that saved them.

Too many patients think a pill’s the answer, she said, when there are multiple different ways to address pain including physical therapy, stress reduction, weight loss, and teaching coping skills.

Patients who take control of their pain fare better, but too many have unrealistic expectations.

“Pain is not simple,’’ Cope said.

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