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Chronic Pain Costs $635 Billion A Year

June 30, 2011

Hard-to-treat chronic pain, a condition that inflicts at least 116 million adult Americans a year, can cost the nation anywhere between $560 billion to $635 billion each year, according to a report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

Addressing the highly common condition that is preventable and could be better managed requires a comprehensive strategy encompassing lost productivity and healthcare expenses, the report suggests.

Chronic pain is described as pain that lasts for more than several months.

The lasting pain can be triggered by many different ailments from arthritis to cancer; from spine problems to digestive issues; and from injuries to surgery. Furthermore, chronic pain can be its own disease, the report notes.

Back pain is the most common reported chronic pain, followed by knee pain, severe headaches or migraines and neck pain, reports Reuters.

The report urges the government, medical groups and insurers to transform the field and says that making pain management more effective is “a moral imperative.”

“We’re viewing this as a critical issue for the United States,” chairman of the study Dr. Philip Pizzo, who is Stanford University’s dean of medicine, told the Associated press (AP).

Chronic pain often is self-treated, or difficult for doctors to diagnose. In addition, doctors as well as society commonly view pain “with some prejudice, a lot of judgment and unfortunately not a lot of informed fact,” Pizzo says.

Dr. Doris K. Cope, who is the pain chief at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told AP: “Pain is not simple. We as physicians need to be healers and educators as well as technicians.”

More often than not, patients think that the answer to chronic pain lies with a pill, Cope says. However, pain can also be managed through physical therapy, stress reduction, weight loss, and teaching coping skills.

“We certainly don’t want to be pill mills,” Cope told teh news agency.

According to the latest data, more than 33 million people abuse opioids ““ morphine and oxycodone ““ painkillers in 2007, which has resulted in more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine, put together, reports Reuters.

Noreen Clark, IOM vice chair who organized the study told Reuters: “It’s a conundrum of opioids. There are people who really need access to pharmaceuticals to manage their pain and there are some who abuse the pharmaceuticals, but the abusers are a very-very small proportion of those who need but don’t have access to the treatment.”

The study analyzed research and the reports of more than 2,000 patients and caregivers on the toll of chronic pain.

Pain is very subjective. It can’t be X-rayed or felt like a lump, and no two individuals with the same injury will have the same degrees of pain, which could depend on genetic factors that affect pain tolerance, other illnesses they may have, level of stress or depression, and even how they feel towards the support or criticism they receive from health workers or family, reports the AP.

Therefore, care should be tailored to each patient, the study suggests.

The panel addressed the issue that doctors are not well trained in chronic pain management, citing a study that found that stand-alone pain courses are not required in most medical schools. In addition, the study says that insurance will not always cover time-consuming counseling in pain-management techniques, consultations with specialists or even non-drug care.

The cost per year alone will garner the attention of Congress, which the AP says mandated the report as part of its new health care law. Health care for pain costs the nation $261 billion to $300 billion a year, while another $297 billion to $336 billion is added to the bill for lost productivity.

Almost a quarter of the costs are paid through the federal Medicare program.

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