People in Pain Often Suffer Silently

Many Don't Report Chronic Pain to Their Doctors

Medically Reviewed by Ann Edmundson, MD, PhD on February 16, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 16, 2006 -- A significant number of people living with chronic pain are silent sufferers who don't tell their doctors they are hurting, new research suggests.

More than one in five people living with pain said they did not seek treatment for the problem. Men and adults under 40 were the least likely to report their pain, and approximately one in four silent sufferers said their pain interfered with daily activities.

The findings come from a survey of Minnesota residents with chronic pain lasting at least three months.

"Just like people who did tell their doctors about their pain, the people who didn't reported that pain interfered with both their daily activities and their sleep to a significant degree," researcher and family physician Barbara Yawn, MD, tells WebMD.

She added that the finding suggests a large unmet medical need with regard to pain management.

Doctors Should Ask About Pain

The survey was conducted between March and June of 2004, and included 2,211 adults over 30 with chronic pain living in Olmstead County, Minn. Twenty-two percent of those questioned said they had not discussed their pain with a physician even though most had seen their doctor within the past 18 months.

Roughly two-thirds of the silent sufferers (70.6%) reported being in moderate to severe pain, and half reported being in pain more than eight days a month.

People who failed to report pain visited a doctor an average of five times a year, compared with 8.5 average yearly visits by people who did report pain.

Yawn says primary care doctors should routinely ask their patients about chronic pain, just as they ask them about other issues that affect health, such as smoking.

She notes that this is already happening in many hospitals, where pain is now considered a "vital sign." The four other vital signs which assess the body's most basic functions are temperature, pulse rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure.

"People should not assume that they have to live with chronic pain," she says.

Time Pressures

American Pain Society president Dennis Turk, PhD, says the finding that pain is underreported comes as no surprise.

"It is common to think that pain is something you just live with, or that it is an inevitable part of aging," he says. "But there is a lot that can be done in addition to treating pain with drugs."

Primary care doctors tend to have a better understanding of pain management today, Turk says. But time constraints make it difficult for many to adequately address pain issues.

"It is easy and quick to write a prescription," he says. "But educating patients about all of the things they can do for pain takes time. Doctors may be more knowledgeable about pain, but they are also under increasing pressure to get patients in and out of the office quickly."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Watkins, E. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, February 2006; vol. 81: pp. 167-171. Barbara P. Yawn, MD, MSPH, Olmstead Medical Center, Rochester, Minn. Dennis Turk, PhD, president, American Pain Society; John and Emma Bonica professor of anesthesiology and pain research, University of Washington, Seattle.
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