The calculations were part of a two-year study by the Centre for Pain Research at NUI, Galway which found one in three adults contacted through GP surgeries suffered chronic pain and had been in pain for an average of seven and a half years. Chronic pain is pain that persists for more than three months, but psychologist Dr Brian McGuire, who headed the study, said he was struck by the much longer periods of time people suffered.
More than one in 10 (21.5%) had been in pain for more than 10 years. “It’s a very chronic, enduring, persistent health problem,” he said. The likelihood of chronic pain increased with age, affecting 50% of the over 65s, and older people were more likely to report more debilitating levels of pain. More than one in three people (37%) described their pain as Grade 1 — of low intensity with a low interference rate in their lives — but 11% said it was Grade 4, of high intensity with a severely limiting effect. Back pain was the biggest problem for younger age groups while knee pain was the most common problem for the over 65s.
Accidents, illnesses and childbirth all featured as causes of pain, but 43% of sufferers knew no cause. Dr McGuire said it was important that healthcare practitioners recognised this.
“Often people feel disbelieved when they present at a pain clinic because they don’t have any discernible cause of their pain and you can’t see anything on an X-ray or scan. Yet more than 40% say their pain has come from some unknown cause, so it’s actually quite normal not to know.”
The study also found chronic pain sufferers were five times more likely than the general population to suffer depression.
People with higher levels of pain had on average four hospital stays, eight outpatient appointments and nine GP visits per year, and also required home help, specialist equipment and other supports which, combined with loss of work, put the cost of their condition at €9,564 each per year.
The costs for those with more moderate levels of pain were calculated at €6,274 each. Given the number of people involved, and the many years their pain lasted, the costs over time were massive, Dr McGuire said.
He urged better services to treat and manage chronic pain.
“There is a severe shortage of specialist pain services generally, and specifically there is a dire shortage of multidisciplinary pain management programmes,” he said.
Gina Plunkett, vice-chair of support group Chronic Pain Ireland, which yesterday published a charter of rights for chronic pain sufferers, urged the Government to adopt it — in particular its assertion that chronic pain be recognised as a disease in its own right.
“Recognising chronic pain as a disease is key. Like any serious medical condition, early intervention is essential.”
* Chronic Pain Ireland’s site is www.chronicpain.ie