Chronic pain affects around 13% of the Irish population, however those affected have to wait an average of two years before seeing a doctor specialising in this area, an expert has warned.
Chronic pain can be described as ‘pain which persists past the normal time of healing', which is taken, in absence of other criteria, to be three months. It can be caused by a range of common conditions, including arthritis, cancer and diabetes, or by other factors such as injuries or operations.
Chronic pain can affect one part of the body - the back is a common location - or several parts.
According to Dr Dominic Hegarty, a consultant in pain management at Cork University Hospital, chronic pain ‘presents a major challenge to the citizens and the economy of Europe'.
Most people affected experience their pain for more than two years and some are affected for 20 years or longer. Chronic pain patients make an average of seven visits to healthcare providers every year, with 22% making more than 10 visits.
However, despite this high number of visits to professionals, at least one in five patients end up waiting between one and five years for a diagnosis or reason for their pain.
"It is not surprising therefore that most patients are dissatisfied with the time it takes to get adequate management of their pain," Dr Hegarty commented.
He noted that the medical world's understanding and treatment of pain has greatly improved over the years, with better medications and psychological support for example. However, ‘more needs to be done', he insisted.
"Educating and recruiting healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurse specialists and psychologists, is paramount to the continued development of chronic pain services in Ireland," he said.
He also pointed out these professionals need to be properly resourced to provide treatment ‘in a timely and cost-effective fashion'.
"Only then will the average waiting time of two years to see a pain physician in this country fall," Dr Hegarty said.
He also noted they importance of providing support structures in the community setting, e.g. via community-based GPs and physiotherapists. This is necessary to ensure the continuation of pain management programmes outside of the hospital setting.
Continued research in this area is also essential in order to potentially provide new treatment options ‘and create valuable employment in research and development nationally', he added.
Dr Hegarty is also chairperson of the World Institute of Pain (WIP) Ireland Section. He made his comments in the journal, Hospital Doctor of Ireland.