Physical pain aggravates majority of Americans, according to poll

05/09/05

STANFORD, Calif. - More than half of all Americans are limping through life these days with the aggravation of on-again, off-again pain or the utter misery of hard-to-treat chronic pain. The result is less work, crankier mood and fewer activities, combined with a wide-ranging search for pain relief.

Folks are clear on where they hurt, but often can't link that pain to a specific cause. And in a surprising look at what works for pain relief, researchers find that just as many people cite prayers as prescription drugs.

These findings come from a recent nationwide survey sponsored by Stanford University Medical Center, ABC News and USA Today. Among the survey's significant findings:

  • Where does it hurt? Back pain is far and away the most common. Knees and shoulders are also troublesome. About one-quarter of all respondents cited back pain as their most recent difficulty, and another quarter cited joint pain. Nearly one-tenth said they suffered from headaches.
  • Why does it hurt? Half the crowd could identify a specific medical condition or injury behind their most recent painful experience. Just as many could not. Among those who could, injury or accident was the most common culprit, followed by arthritis.
  • Does it matter? Yes. About four in 10 people cited interference with each of these quality-of-life indicators: work and other duties, mood, day-to-day activities, sleep and enjoyment of life.
  • What helps? In desperation, people have tried everything from over-the-counter drugs to alcohol. For effectiveness, prayer and prescription drugs come out on top.

"Pain has been a hidden disease; it has not received as much attention as other diseases," said Raymond Gaeta, MD, associate professor of anesthesia at the Stanford School of Medicine and director of pain management services at Stanford Hospital & Clinics. "But now there's a growing recognition that pain really is not just the sensation we have - it's something that interferes with every one of us, with life."

The new survey carefully documents the experience of pain in America. "It's very unusual that you have an independent, rigorous, national random-sample survey on the subject of pain," said Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News. "This survey puts this issue out before a broader public, and it really underscores the serious public health problem that exists regarding pain in this country."

Indeed, the incidence of pain is significant. About 60 percent of respondents said their most recent pain episode had occurred within just the last month. And about 40 percent said pain plagues them often.

So what do the multitudes do when physical distress kicks in? Most - about 80 percent - go for over-the-counter drugs and home remedies. Prescription drugs, bed rest and prayer constitute second-string remedies: About six in 10 respondents have tried those.

And what helps most? Good pain relief, it seems, is hard to come by. Respondents ranked prayer and prescription drugs as tops. Still, only about 50 percent of those who tried these methods said they worked "very well." Another 40 percent said they worked "somewhat well." Chiropractic and massage therapy ranked second-best. Forty percent of the people who tried these modalities said they worked very well.

Gaeta offered an explanation for the popularity of prayer as pain relief. "Prayer falls in the category of having patients learn about the meaning of their pain," he said. "Sometimes patients do need to be introspective before they can move forward." The survey noted that those who used prayer were likely to rely as well on other pain treatments.

Many people are getting by only with the regular help of modern pharmaceuticals. Of those who have tried over-the-counter-drugs for pain relief, 10 percent use them daily. And among those who have tried prescription drugs, about 20 percent take them daily. In other words, more than 10 percent of all adults in America rely on prescription painkillers every day.

The good news, Gaeta said, is that people are talking to their doctors. More than six in 10 survey participants said they consulted a doctor or other health-care worker about their most recent pain episode. And more than half found at least some relief.

Now, with growing numbers of pain specialists and better-educated patients and physicians, he's hopeful that number will rise. "All the surveys and information coming out now are saying pain impacts not only the patients' livelihood but also, in ever-widening circles, family, work and even society in general," Gaeta said. "I'm hoping for not only the clinical care to improve, but for the science to catch up and for us to make some dramatic breakthroughs in pain treatment."

Pollsters queried 1,204 adults by phone, April 13-19, 2005. The results have a three-point error margin. Poll results and analysis are available at abcnews.com.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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