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One in five New Zealanders suffer chronic pain

Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Fri, 30 Nov 2018, 7:15AM
(Photo / Getty Images)

One in five New Zealanders suffer chronic pain

Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Fri, 30 Nov 2018, 7:15AM

There are calls for more research into pain after a study found one in five New Zealanders live with persistent pain, and the health system struggles to deal with the problem effectively.

Clinical senior lecturer at Otago University Bronwyn Lennox Thompson, who is the co-author of an article on chronic pain in today's New Zealand Medical Journal, told Kate Hawkesby we are living longer and that means we are more likely to experience persistent pain.

"People were afraid to ask for help with chronic pain earlier because they worried people would think they were nuts and people are living longer so they tend to live with things like osteoarthritis for a lot longer than before." 

She said GPs sometimes write off chronic pain because it's hard to know exactly what's causing it.

"You can't see it, nobody else knows what it's like to feel your pain but really a lot of the problem is because we just don't have enough training in the medical and other health sciences undergraduate programmes."

The United States has seen a boom in opioid painkiller prescriptions, however, Lennox Thompson said painkillers often make things worse in the long run.

"I think the opioid disaster in the States probably is not something we want to have in New Zealand."

"Opioids aren't effective for a lot of forms of chronic pain and, in fact, we don't have a secret stash of goodies hidden in the bottom drawer for the good patients, we just don't have very effective treatments."

She said the reason pain is so hard to treat is because every type of pain is very different.

"It's a really complex problem. There is not just one form of chronic pain. There are lots of different types of pain and we need to have pain in its acute form, like short-term pain, because we use it."

"We use it to know not to do things, we use it to learn and we use it to avoid harm to our bodies. It's when the pain systems start to fall apart or are dysfunctional we start to have problems."

"If we lost all pain we would be at risk of harming yourself so to try to treat chronic pain is a really complicated process."

The researcher wants New Zealand to adopt a "National Pain Strategy" to help all organisations involved work together to help patients suffering from persistent pain.

"In Australia, there is a national pain strategy where all the organisations across government and non-government work together to say this is what we need to do to help people." 

One woman's struggle with pain

Deb Thompson, 56, a part-time media studies teacher at Auckland's Western Springs College, has lived with persistent pain for more than five years.

It took six months to diagnose a fractured pelvis. Later she had two operations - one to deal with torn hip cartilage and the other to replace a hip joint.

But surgery didn't end the pain and Thompson continued a wide search for help.

In around 2015 she was referred to the Auckland District Health Board's regional pain service and her life changed dramatically.

She worked with various health practitioners and learned how pain could continue despite flesh and bone being repaired.

Deb Thompson who has persisted with debilitating pain after she fractured her pelvis. Photo / Dean Purcell
Deb Thompson who has persisted with debilitating pain after she fractured her pelvis. Photo / Dean Purcell

She has done acceptance and commitment therapy and participates in a weekly mindfulness and meditation session at the service. Separately she sees a physiotherapist.

Thompson used to take Tramadol and later gabapentin for her pain but found them unpleasant and stopped using them.

She still has pain but copes by managing her life well - doing things she enjoys and that keep her mind busy, while still staying calm.

"Instead of trying to find answers, I'm trying to live with what I've got. It's a constant balancing act for me - to not allow my pain to rule my life and bring me down."

"When the pain is at its worst, I shut the door and go to bed and watch Netflix."


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