Eight million people in the UK suffer from chronic pain – that is, pain that has lasted for more than three months and not improved. It has been estimated that in 22 per cent of cases, chronic pain also leads to depression. Just why pain occurs is often not understood, with no obvious organic cause. What is known, however, is that once pain has been ‘switched on’, the longer it is left without proper treatment, the more difficult it becomes to treat.
The majority of chronic pain sufferers rely upon a cocktail of strong drugs prescribed by their general practitioner, many with unpleasant side effects. Astoundingly, just 2 per cent will ever see a pain medicine specialist.
The problem is that chronic pain is just so misunderstood that it is not treated as seriously as it should be. This is not helped by the likes of NICE, who in 2009 issued guidelines banning anti-inflammatory steroid injections for people with recurring low back pain when the cause is unknown.
If pain has become chronic, a general practitioner should at least give the patient the option of referral to a pain medicine specialist. Pain medicine specialists have a far greater armory and expertise in terms of both medication and other treatments, both invasive and non-invasive.
Some of these treatments are very expensive. For example, in the private sector, the fitting of a spinal cord stimulator (a little like a TENS machine implanted under the skin) will leave you with little change from £25,000. It’s not difficult to see, therefore, why such treatments are often difficult to come by on the NHS. That said, the NHS does have some excellent resources for treating chronic pain. This includes the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath, a national centre of excellence for treating a variety of chronic pain conditions, such as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), Fibromyalgia (FM), Neuropathic Pain and Myofascial Pain Syndrome (MPS).
If you suffer from chronic pain, it is important that you ask for a referral to a pain medicine specialist at the earliest opportunity. This will provide you with the very best opportunity for your condition to be properly assessed and treated, and therefore give you a far better prospect of achieving an improvement in your condition.