CTV Investigates: Pain Killers
Published Monday, February 4, 2013 6:52PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 6, 2013 3:35PM EST
Part 1: One in five Canadians suffer from chronic pain
The Canadian Pain Coalition says chronic pain is a ‘silent epidemic’ in Canada.
“Some people call it an invisible disability,” says coalition president Lynn Cooper.
According to the group, one in five Canadians – an estimated 6.8 million people coast to coast – live with chronic pain.
Chronic pain is more serious and longer lasting than general aches and pains which can disappear in short order and often respond easily to treatment.
It’s defined as any pain which continues for three months or longer.
“It’s very disempowering. It’s dehumanizing. It’s demoralizing,” says Cooper.
Doctors say patients with chronic pain often have to be treated for more than just the pain, because pain can lead to depression, which in turn can cause further pain.
Anxiety and stress are other symptoms of chronic pain, Cooper says – and in extreme cases, those unable to cope with extreme pain can even turn to suicide.
Kitchenerresident Maureen Fleming knows the mental symptoms of pain all too well. Born with cerebral palsy, Fleming now lives with arthritis, cancer and constant reminders of physical pain.
“Chronic pain, to me, leaves me feeling hopeless,” she says.
“You have to have some kind of hope that you’ll have some quality of life, and with chronic pain it just doesn’t feel like I do.”
Dr. Ken Smith provides chiropractic care to Fleming to help her with her pain. He says his methods get better results than prescribing painkillers.
“The chemical approach to pain management isn’t always sufficient to help these people cope with their pain,” he says.
But Fleming says she’s learned the biggest mistake sufferers of chronic pain make isn’t in what type of treatment they receive, but in not doing enough to look out for their own best interests.
“You really have to take an active role and work with the health care professionals to ensure that you have some quality of life,” she says.
Fleming does use some medication to help manage her pain, and says the combination of that, regular visits to her chiropractor and maintaining a positive outlook are the best combination of treatments to keep her pain manageable.
Part 2: Chronic physical pain leads to financial aches
Canadians suffering from arthritis and other diseases causing chronic pain have to live not only with the physical aches, but also with an additional pain hitting them in the pocketbook.
“Our health care systems are not supporting the person who is living with pain, their family or our health care providers to have adequate pain management,” says Lynn Cooper, president of the Canadian Pain Coalition.
While visits to the doctor are covered for all Canadians, other expenses like prescription drugs, rehab and other measures to help cope with physical pain must be paid for either through a health plan or out of pocket.
Cooper says chronic pain keeps many Canadians from holding down a job, often eliminating the possibility of them being able to fund pain treatments out of a health plan.
Sandra Gartz knows that firsthand. The Kitchener woman was already dealing with chronic pain brought on by fibromyalgia when she suffered a workplace injury. Since then, pain has kept her from being able to hold down a job.
“One day you’re working and carrying on and supporting your family, and the next day you’re doing nothing except walking around in the house and having your meals prepared for you. It’s devastating,” she says.
Chronic pain is an estimated $60-billion drain on the Canadian economy each year, with health care expenses and lost productivity costing the average pain sufferer an annual $17,000.
Gartz does have limited coverage through a health plan, which allows her to seek treatment from a massage therapist.
“Massage day is a rest for me. After my treatment … I go home and I rest for the rest of the day,” explains Gartz.
“When I get up (the next day) I’ll feel better than I did prior to massage.”
The Canadian Pain Coalition estimates that about 6.8 million Canadians live with chronic pain.
Part 3: Arthritis most common pain-causing disease
Of the various ailments causing chronic pain in an estimated 6.8 million Canadians, the most common is arthritis.
A disease causing inflammation of the joints, arthritis makes life difficult for those who suffer from it, such as Waterloo resident Joan Pearson.
“Constant pain is quite hard to live with. I’m not very good at living with constant pain, so I take painkillers,” Pearson tells CTV.
But while medication is one way of treating the disease, alternative forms of treatment also prove popular.
In Pearson’s case, that alternative treatment comes from Sue MacQueen, a Kitchener-based therapist working for the Arthritis Society.
MacQueen says people living with arthritis often feel alone and disconnected.
“People feel the pain in their joints, but friends and family may say ‘You look great, why do you have pain?’” she says.
Pearson’s pain began in her hands. She says she tried to ignore it and work past it at first, but later realized she would need to seek help.
“It became more difficult to ignore,” she says.
“Opening things is very difficult. Everything is very difficult.”
Canadian Pain Coalition president Lynn Cooper agrees that it’s difficult for pain sufferers to get their problem across to others.
“We can be very easily misjudged as complainers, maligners, and worse yet drug seekers,” she says.
But people are starting to listen, and in some cases even developing new tools and products to make life easier for those suffering from arthritis and other diseases causing chronic pain.
Those tools can do simple tasks like automatically opening a bottle of water, something arthritis makes it difficult for Pearson to do.
“It is simple little things that have made a big difference,” she says.
Although arthritis is generally thought of as a disease for the elderly, it can affect people at any age. Two-thirds of Canadian arthritis sufferers are female.
MacQueen says seeking medical help early on is key in preventing arthritis.
“If it is a condition like rheumatoid arthritis, you have a very small window of opportunity to get on medication that will prevent damage from occurring in the joints,” she says.