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The Price Tag on Pain

<P>Chronic pain costs society more than $100 billion a year, but it's often misunderstood and untreated.</P>

The Problem With Pain

Part of the difficulty in diagnosing and treating pain may lie in how we look at it. While Hahn tells WebMD that up to 90% of all diseases cause pain, alleviating the pain often takes a backseat to the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Obviously, treating the underlying condition is crucial, but easing people's suffering is important, too.

"Doctors are very well-trained in diagnosing and hopefully treating medical problems," Cowan tells WebMD. "What they're not well-trained in is managing pain."

Another reason that pain may not have received enough attention from the medical community is that it can't be measured, Cowan says. Feeling pain is, ultimately, a personal experience, and there's no way for a doctor to gauge how much distress a person is really in.

Because feeling pain is purely a subjective experience, it often leads to problems with family and co-workers. While you may be in terrible distress, the people around you just can't see or feel what you're going through.

"It's sometimes difficult for patients who are suffering from pain to get the recognition they deserve," says Hahn. "It would be a lot easier for them if they had a cast on a broken arm, since society recognizes that sort of badge of courage."

The emotional costs of pain can be devastating, not only to you, but to those around you. "Pain can lead to serious dysfunction in family and social life," says Hahn.

He also observes that depression and pain often go together. "Pain can be a symptom of depression and depression can result from chronic pain," he says. "And chronic pain also increases a person's risk of suicide."

Misunderstood Pain

A Partners for Understanding Pain survey shows most Americans know little about who suffers from chronic pain and how it is treated. The group is a coalition of 50 medical organizations.

The survey revealed that 78% of people are afraid they would become addicted to pain medication. But pain expert Daniel Carr, MD, of the Tufts-New England Medical Center, says in a news release that most pain medications rarely cause addiction because they don't produce a "high." They merely relieve pain.

Most people in the survey also believe that most chronic pain sufferers are 65 or older. But the Partners for Understanding Pain says 80% of sufferers really are between 24 and 64.

Can your doctor diagnose your pain problem and treat it? Most people in the survey believe so. But Carr says few doctors have formal training because few medical schools teach pain management.

Taking Your Medicine

A wide variety of treatments are available for pain, but not enough people are seeking them out, Hahn says.

One reason is that many have inaccurate views and fears of pain medications. We've all heard the stories about celebrities and public figures who've developed an addiction to painkillers, and many people fear that taking these medications will lead directly to drug addiction. According to the Partners for Understanding Pain survey, 78% of people interviewed believed that becoming addicted to painkillers was a likely risk of treatment. However, that isn't the case.

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