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Pain Management Health Center

Is Chronic Pain on the Rise?

Chronic pain relief becomes critical as baby boomers age.
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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 -- approaches, including:

  • Prescription drugs
  • Over-the-counter medicines
  • Complementary medicine (also called alternative or integrative medicine)

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 reactions).

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.

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