Is Chronic Pain on the Rise?
Chronic pain relief becomes critical as baby boomers age.
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.
"If I had to guess, I'd say that the incidence of pain is probably about
the same as it's always been," says Edwards. "What has changed is our
way of talking about it."
Cohen argues that this new perspective on pain has had a big effect. He says
that 40 years ago, pain after a mastectomy was reported to be about 5%. Now,
some studies show it to be as high as 50%. Obviously, surgery wasn't less
painful forty years ago. But where people in the past may have simply struggled
through potentially debilitating pain, now we ask for help.
"As health care has improved, the whole medical profession has focused
more on quality of life rather than just life," says Cohen. Chronic pain
relief has become an important goal in its own right.
And people gain that relief differently, often taking one -- or several --
- Prescription drugs
- Over-the-counter medicines
- Complementary medicine (also called alternative or integrative
Prescription Drugs and Chronic Pain Relief
Narcotic painkillers like OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin are widely
associated with chronic pain relief -- and with addiction. However, experts
generally say the dangers of abuse are overstated.
"The fact that there is a potential for abuse of these drugs doesn't
diminish their value in treating pain," says Edwards. "There just needs
to be a balance." Every medication has drawbacks, and deciding to use one
is always a matter of weighing the benefits and risks.
And with some medications there are potentially grave risks. Painkillers
called Cox-2 inhibitors -- like Bextra, Celebrex, and Vioxx -- were heralded as
wonder drugs a few years ago. Then research showed that for some they posed a
risk of heart attacks and strokes. (Bextra also posed a risk of serious skin
Of these drugs, only Celebrex is still available, and the FDA requires it to
carry a strong risk warning.
Surgery or implanted devices -- like pain pumps -- are sometimes helpful for
severe chronic pain, though of course surgery has its own risks. If you feel
you need a new approach to managing your chronic pain, talk to your doctor.