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Is Chronic Pain on the Rise?

Chronic pain relief becomes critical as baby boomers age.
By
WebMD Feature

As the first baby boomers hit their 60s, many are finding life hurts a bit more than it once did. Whether playing tennis, lifting a basket of laundry, or just getting out of bed, pain -- for some, chronic pain -- is a new companion.

"We have an aging population," says Robert Bonakdar, MD, director of pain management at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, Calif. "As the baby boomers get older, we're going to have more and more people with chronic back pain, osteoarthritis" and other painful conditions.

But while previous generations may have been more willing to accept pain as an inevitable consequence of aging, experts say many baby boomers won't stand for it.

"I think that baby boomers are less likely to accept the status quo," says Steven P. Cohen, MD, an anesthesiologist in the division of pain medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "They have a sense of entitlement. Living the rest of their lives in chronic pain is just unacceptable."

The good news is that they're right. Just because some painful illnesses become more common as you get older doesn't mean you're doomed to suffer. You should not accept living in chronic pain -- not when plenty of treatments offer pain relief.

Chronic Pain: Why Are We Hurting?

The causes of pain aren't so surprising. As people age, their sins catch up with them. A lifetime of minor injuries -- a stress fracture from jogging in your 30s, a bad back from lifting a couch in your 40s -- can add up to serious pain.

"You see a lot of back pain, neck pain, knee pain, joint pain, and pain from falls, and tears and other injuries in baby boomers," says Christopher L. Edwards, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and medical director of the Biofeedback Laboratory at Duke University School of Medicine.

The boomer generation can be stubborn about fitness, says Edwards. "Some baby boomers have the same exercise regimen at age 60 that they had thirty years before," Edwards tells WebMD. "Their bodies can't keep up with them."

And while keeping active is important at every age, unfortunately bones weaken and muscles atrophy over time. These are facts of life. If you push yourself too hard, you can get hurt. Sometimes, that injury becomes a source of chronic pain.

Disease can play a hand, too. Pain can stem from arthritis, diabetes, and cancer. Pain after surgery can become chronic. Painful syndromes, like fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also cause suffering.

"With almost every medical condition, the incidence of pain increases with age," says Cohen.

Is Chronic Pain More Common Now?

As baby boomers age, the number of people with painful conditions like osteoarthritis will rise. Current estimates of those living with chronic pain range from 50-65 million. But is the average person more likely to be in pain than he or she used to be? Experts aren't sure.

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