Ongoing chronic pain is an epidemic in Australia. One in five people are living with chronic pain and this number rises to one in three over the age of 65. People with chronic pain have the greatest levels of disability in our community. It is the leading cause of early retirement from the workforce, with back problems and arthritis accounting for around 40 per cent of forced retirements. The level of workforce participation in people with chronic pain could be as low as 19 per cent.
While a quarter of Australians live with chronic pain, data also tells us that this burden is disproportionately harder to bear in rural and remote areas of our country. Recent data released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that people living in our rural regions are also more likely to misuse pharmaceuticals, with use of opioid analgesics nearly twice as high as in major cities. This is consistent with data from the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program which reported higher levels of drugs in regional areas than capital city areas. Much of this use is likely to be related to initial management of chronic pain conditions.
While it is well known that pain management services along with pain specialists and allied health professionals trained in pain management are limited in rural and remote Australia, there needs to be broader recognition of the fact that these access issues often delay treatment and therefore increase levels of disability and reduce people’s capacity to return to work while impacting their quality of life.
We need to do better to address the unmet need for pain management in our rural and regional communities.
Untreated chronic pain has profound consequences in every area of life, commonly resulting in decreased enjoyment of normal activities, loss of function, role change and relationship difficulties, and these experiences can exacerbate feelings of isolation and stigmatisation. It can also severely impact mental health, with over a quarter of adults with severe or very severe pain experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress.
The task ahead is massive, but we are making steady progress towards alleviating these problems. The Australian Government has acted to address pain and has funded Painaustralia to develop a National Strategic Acton Plan for Chronic Pain Management. The Plan is a step towards improving access to affordable best practice pain care Australia-wide and will offer a roadmap for implementation of the National Pain Strategy.
The development of a National Action Plan is also an important step towards raising awareness, and enabling increased access to prevention and early intervention, treatment and support, and research and evaluation. This will become a key component to ensuring quality of life and limiting the escalating social and economic costs of unmanaged pain.
The Plan will address better access to affordable treatment for chronic pain, and increasing understanding of the care options available to: minimise misuse and reliance on pain medication; improve quality of life for individuals and enhance their mental health; help more Australians return to work after injury; and reduce the economic burden of pain in this country, particularly in regional areas that face specific barriers to service access.
We are hopeful that the development of the National Action Plan will be followed by the implementation of the world’s first, fully funded government response to address comprehensively the burden of pain.