The most commonly dispensed pain meds

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New research has found that one in five Australians aged 45 and over are living with persistent, ongoing pain – and this group is more likely to have been dispensed pain medication

More Australians than ever visited their GP for chronic pain in 2015-6, a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Chronic Pain in Australia, has found.

The report explores the latest national data on the proportion of people with chronic pain, as well as its impact, treatment and management.

“In 2016, it was estimated that almost one in five (19%, 1.6 million) Australians aged 45 and over had chronic pain with higher rates for women compared to men,” said AIHW spokesperson Katherine Faulks.

“Chronic pain is ongoing and debilitating, and can impact a person’s ability to participate in work, daily activities, exercise, and access health care.

“It lasts beyond the normal healing time after injury or illness, and is experienced on most days of the week. It can result from injury, surgery, musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis, or other medical conditions such as cancer.”

Between 2006–07 and 2015–16, the rate of GP visits where chronic back pain or unspecific chronic pain were managed, increased by 67%, representing about 400,000 more encounters for both conditions.

There were almost 105,000 hospitalisations in 2017–18 where chronic pain was deemed relevant to the patient’s care and patients with chronic pain were more likely to have a longer stay in hospital compared to those without.

“People with chronic pain are more likely than those without chronic pain to experience mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, sleep disturbance and fatigue,” Ms Faulks said.

“A person with chronic pain often has contact with a range of health professionals to assist in the management of their pain, including GPs, medical specialists, psychologists, physiotherapists and social workers.

“For people aged 45 and over, those with chronic pain are almost three times as likely to have been dispensed pain medication as those without chronic pain,” Ms Faulks said.

Pain medication included in this data were opioids, migraine medication, and other analgesics.

Paracetamol was the most commonly dispensed analgesic (28% of those with chronic pain and 8.9% of those without chronic pain).

This was followed by codeine, with 18% of those with chronic pain and 7.5% of those without chronic pain having been dispensed codeine, either by itself or in combination with non-opioid analgesics, such as paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen.

According to Painaustralia CEO Carol Bennett, the new data “once again shines a light on the growing impact of chronic pain”.

“Australia is facing a pain epidemic,” she said. “The AIHW report reiterated our findings that pain costs our country a staggering $140 billion dollar every year, yet people living with chronic pain struggle with limited access to treatment and support options resulting n doctors and consumers continuing to rely heavily on prescription opioids to manage what is a multi-faceted, complex condition that needs more sophisticated responses.”

She said that despite evidence of harms related to certain analgesics, people with chronic pain “continue to be primarily sent down the pharmacological intervention path”, with more than half (57%) dispensed analgesics, compared with one in five (21%) people without chronic pain.

“The last few years have seen multiple attempts to reduce opioid related harm, but clearly more needs to be done,” she said.

“We need better awareness among consumers and doctors about pain management treatment options – and we need to ensure those options exist.

“Where pain medication is prescribed, people living with pain will also benefit from a multidisciplinary approach to their care, such as a physiotherapist, psychologist, occupational therapist or other allied health services,” Ms Bennett said.

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