Chronic pain is a growing global problem. Classified as aches or discomfort that last or recur for more than three months, chronic pain is no longer considered a condition and is labeled as a disease instead. Millions of people worldwide live with debilitating pain that doesn’t go away, even with medical treatment. For most, their hopes of finding a cure or putting an end to the discomfort are replaced with the resignation of finding ways to live with it.
Chronic pain affects most Americans directly and indirectly. Many chronic pain sufferers are prescribed addictive opioids to manage the pain which leads to drug addictions or harmful side effects from regular prescription drug use. Opioid addiction and prescription drug abuse have led to epidemic numbers of overdoses. In addition, the country’s growing addictions to legal opioids has led to increased heroin use and to drug-related crimes.
The question is, are other countries suffering from the same opioid problem? How do other nations manage chronic pain? Let’s take a closer look at how other medical systems worldwide treat sufferers.
Chronic Pain in Europe
Although one in five Europeans suffers from chronic pain, the health issue is not addressed uniformly among European Union nations. The issue is not uncommon; the World Health Organization is currently working on a revision of its pain management guidelines. It aims to set more uniform controlled substance policies across all nations for both adult and child treatments.
A patient survey by Pfizer found that the top causes of chronic pain in Europeans are back problems, joint, and neck ailments followed by headaches. The Netherlands may be leading chronic pain treatment in Europe by adopting what is called the Dutch Pain Clinic Carousel. The system attempts to diagnose the issue faster and more efficiently by scheduling a patient to be seen by several specialists and physicians on the same day so they may work together to come up with a comprehensive treatment plan.
Although the European Union has yet to establish a uniform treatment program across its member nations, the Union does provide its citizens free healthcare and more comprehensive pain management programs that turn to opioids as a last resort.
Chronic Pain in Japan
Studies of Japanese workers found that work and chronic pain are related, with higher occurrences of pain if the workers were unhappy at work. The challenging workplace and pain link makes sense if you consider that stress can manifest as physical symptoms, including chest pains and headaches.
Unlike the liberal use of opioids in the United States to treat suffering, the Japanese reserve opioid treatment for patients with chronic cancer. The Japanese may be the most reticent of all nations to use opioids to manage their discomfort; half of those patients on opioids discontinue their treatment on their own despite the ailment.
Instead, a multi-disciplinary approach is usually taken to treat chronic pain by addressing psychological and behavioral issues alongside the physical ailment, “correcting cognitive bias, tuning brain function abnormality, reconditioning physical disuse, and modifying environmental stress.”
Chronic Pain in China
According to the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine, “The cultural perception of pain in China is heavily influenced by Stoicism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and socioeconomic status.” It continues by explaining that “perception of pain can be a barrier to receiving adequate pain treatments.” Nevertheless, chronic pain hospitals in cities such as Wuhan and Shanghai have been opening throughout China — and are waitlisted.
The Chinese treat ailments and discomfort similar to the U.S. system. A hospital visit may be necessary for those with more severe conditions or those suffering from cancer. Surgery to implant an intravenous drug delivery device for a constant dose of medication or to treat the source of the discomfort may be necessary. Most patients are treated as outpatients and given an immediate pain relief treatment followed by sending the patient home with medication. The doctor then follows up with the patient regularly to check on them and make any adjustments to the treatment plan as necessary.
How Americans Can Better Manage Chronic Pain
Opioids are an effective way to treat and reduce the discomfort from chronic pain, but they are not a cure. They only help the patient by reducing their suffering so they can lead a relatively normal life.
There are safe ways to take opioids. It’s essential to follow a doctor’s instructions closely and not mix the medication with other prescriptions, drugs, or alcohol. The problem is, many don’t follow the medical instructions or may take more than they’re prescribed. Because opioids are highly addictive, alternative methods of pain management can reduce a chronic pain sufferer’s reliance on controlled substances.
Americans have the added challenge of an expensive healthcare system in which treatments can be costly. Many Americans choose to go overseas for medical tourism in search of more affordable treatments to manage pain. For someone suffering from conditions such as chronic pelvic pain or back issues, alternative (and potentially less expensive) treatment methods may include acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, or exercise.
Interestingly enough, many of the most effective alternative pain relief treatments, such as acupuncture or cupping, incorporate Chinese or Far-Eastern philosophies. Americans could benefit by looking at how other countries manage the chronic pain epidemic to find new ways to manage their discomfort.