On February 14, 2012, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions met to discuss a serious issue facing Americans today: Pain. The panel was entitled Exploring Challenges to Relief and featured a five member panel testifying to the Committee. The speakers included Dr. Lawrence A. Tabak from the NIH, Dr. Phillip Pizzo, Dean of the School of Medicine at Stanford University, Dr. John Sarno of the New York University School of Medicine, Dr. William Maixner, Director of the Center for Neurosensory Disorders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Christin Veasley, the Executive Director of the National Vulvodinya Association and a chronic pain sufferer herself.
The reports of this hearing can be found both on the HELP Committee website and an excellent overview can be found from HealthCentral's own Karen Lee Richards. However, as a third-party spectator who does not suffer from chronic pain, my perception of these hearings may be a bit different. With my background in political science and health policy, I tried to view this from a strictly objective perspective, though working with HealthCentral's Chronic Pain community for the last two years has certainly influenced my awareness of the plight.
Some items stood out to me much more than others. Primarily, I found it refreshing and necessary for the panel to refer to the chronic pain epidemic as just that - an epidemic - and it was twice compared to the polio epidemic of the early 1900s. Dr. Tabak referred to chronic pain as a disease in of itself, and that pain is both a current issue as well as one that will be an issue in the future. In order to best tackle this issue, pain as a subject must be referred to as the issue and not just a symptom of greater conditions.
As a taxpaying American, one figure presented by Dr. Pizzo horrified me: 116 million Americans suffer from chronic pain (not including children and military, among others), and pain issues cost an estimated $565 billion to $630 billion each year. This is more than cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined! $100 billion of that come from the state and federal governments! Dr. Maixner stated that 14 percent of Medicare money is used for chronic pain, and 30 percent of direct and indirect costs are for chronic pain conditions. These figures are nothing short of staggering.
Despite the obvious humanitarian perspective, why should someone not directly affected by pain care? From a strictly financial perspective, the expenses are far greater than they should be - difficulties with individual doctors, utilizing the wrong testing mechanisms, misdiagnosis, follow-ups to incorrect analysis, etc. cause expenses to skyrocket. Ms. Veasley spoke that $80 billion each year is wasted due to misdiagnosis of chronic pain conditions among women alone! These factors are crushing both those who have chronic pain and those who have to pay for it.
Though I personally do not have chronic pain - and, outside of this pain community, I do not know anyone that has a pain condition - the financial issues alone are affecting me every day. In the future, I (as well as those around me and my future children) will be forced to pay for missteps in diagnosis, analysis and treatment for those who are suffering, either through tax increases, high premiums to support those with such conditions or through other government programs that had to be slashed to account for the weight of chronic pain on America.
All of the panelists agreed that pain is a silent, hidden and poorly treated epidemic. Until very recently (if at all), pain was not considered anything more than a symptom that needed to be addressed in order to stop the pain; today, doctors and researchers are realizing that the underlying issues of pain must be investigated in order to fully understand the problem before them. This panel called for increased research dollars from the NIH in order to help attempt to explain what is going on with so many chronic pain patients.
If 116 million Americans are suffering with pain, this is more than one-third of the population. From a purely financial perspective, investment in understanding and prevention now could help save millions (or more) in the future. From a humanitarian perspective, we can no longer collectively shrug our shoulder towards the millions suffering from chronic pain. This is an epidemic that needs to be controlled and the right services need to be provided to those who need them.
Published On: February 27, 2012