Can we afford to ignore the $600 billion a year cost of chronic pain?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Experts are calling for more to be done for patients with chronic pain.

Roger Fillingim, PhD, president of the American Pain Society is one advocate speaking out about the problem faced by patients who suffer from chronic pain, defined as being present for 3-months or more. But he;s not the only expert who is taling about finding better ways to help people in pain.

Fillingim says funding for research for better treatments is an unmet need that can no longer be ignored.

Fillingim points out chronic pain costs more than $600 billion a year for treatment and lost work time, yet grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) account for just 1 percent of research.

Yet another recent finding suggests when it comes to treating uncomplicated back pain, physicians are willing to order costly imaging tests and prescribe expensive medications to patients.

“The best hope for achieving significant advances in pain prevention and treatment is through directing a more appropriate level of funding for pain research grants that will translate advances in pain science into relief for patients,” Fillingim said at the American Pain Society’s (APS) annual scientific conference.

“Given the funding cutbacks in Washington, it is time to align and shift biomedical research funding priorities more closely with the most serious unmet medical needs in our society, and improving treatment for chronic pain is at the top of the list,” Fillingim adds.

One recently highlighted issue in the news came from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center researchers who point out cost associated with mismanagement of back pain treatment by health care providers.


The report that was published in the July 29, 2013 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, suggested health care dollars could be saved and patient outcomes improved if physicians followed recommended clinical guidelines for back pain treatment that is the 5th leading cause of visits to the doctor.

According to the JAMA study authors, back and neck pain costs Americans approximately $86 billion a year, with another $20 billion added to that for loss of productivity.

Current guidelines suggest using acetaminophen of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug in addition to physical therapy. Most back pain, the authors say, resolves within 3-months, yet physicians often opt for expensive MRIs and narcotics for pain control, according to the report.

Added to the unmet need of treating pain is that most physicians don't have adequate training. A finding published in the Journal of American Osteopathic Association, today reports just four U.S. medical schools offer a required course on pain management.

Raymond Hobbs, M.D., a Henry Ford Internal Medicine physician and senior author of the evidence-based clinical review article agrees effective pain management is a "major health care problem".

Hobbs points out pain can be affected by a variety of factors, including negative emotions. But prescribing narcotics carries a very real risk that patients can overdose. Hobbs has developed a tool to help primary care physicians, outlined in the journal article.

Untreated pain is disabling and costly. While The American Pain Society is calling for more research funding to treat chronic pain, other researchers are finding added costs from physicians not following guidelines currently in place for treating back pain. The end result of both scenarios is that patients suffer and health care costs continue to escalate.

Mark Jensen, PhD, editor of The Journal of Pain says current pain treatments just aren't adequate. "We are beginning to learn the biological processes that drive chronic pain and distinguish it from acute pain, but much more research is required to determine which treatment approaches are most effective in acute and chronic pain," Jensen said in a press release.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) reports there are more than 1 million Americans suffering from chronic pain. Pain experts are asking that more to be done to help patients suffering from chronic and often debilitating pain.