14 Million Struggle with Severe Pain: Is Painkiller Abuse Unavoidable?

About 25 million Americans (11 percent of the population) are living with pain every day of their lives, and an estimated 14 million (or 6.4 percent of the population) report living with daily severe pain, according to the results of a survey conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the Journal of Pain.

Richard Nahin is author of the study and an epidemiologist with the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). He remarked upon the fact that in addition to these numbers, about 54 million American adults – or about 25 percent of the population – report that they experience “mild” pain but do not define it as incapacitating.

While 44 percent of Americans are living without pain, and it is difficult to say whether or not the number of Americans who are struggling with pain is higher than in past years, it is clear that pain is a significant issue in many people’s lives.

Says Nahin: “About one-third of all adults have joint pain in a given year, and a bit more than a quarter of all adults have back pain.”

NIH says that pain is an issue for more Americans than heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined. It is also the number one cause of long-term disability.

Chronic Pain and Painkiller Abuse

Unfortunately, because many Americans take painkillers to treat their pain, it may also mean a higher risk of developing a painkiller abuse or addiction problem, a disorder that can significantly decrease a person’s overall health and quality of life that is already diminished by pain. In fact, the survey results suggested that the people who reported experiencing the highest levels of pain were more likely to also report more intense problems with overall health and disability as compared to participants who reported their pain level as “mild.”

Though some state legislatures and the federal government are working together with the medical community to create legislative changes that will help patients to avoid developing a dependence upon their prescription medication, some patients struggling with chronic pain are finding that it is more difficult to get the prescriptions they need even when they are not struggling with a drug abuse problem.

For many families, the best way to manage the issue of positive pain management and minimize the risk of addiction and abuse while also cutting back on the potential hassle that comes with increased legislative restriction on the use of these drugs is to learn new ways to manage pain and decrease the need for medication.

Alternate Sources of Pain Relief

Though many patients can safely take a prescription for painkillers for a finite period of time safely and experience no long-term repercussions as a result, some will develop an addiction to their medication and/or experience an overdose due to abuse of the drug.

Said Nahin: “Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines from the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society found good evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, spinal manipulation and interdisciplinary rehabilitation are all moderately effective for chronic or subacute [lasting more than four weeks] low back pain.”

Other alternative options for the treatment of chronic pain include:

  1. Meditation
  2. Yoga
  3. Massage and bodywork
  4. Acupuncture
  5. Tai chi

Though use of these therapies may not eliminate the need for prescription pain relievers, especially among patients who struggle with chronic, severe pain, they may help to lower the dose necessary to achieve pain relief in most patients and effectively cut out the need for painkillers for those living with mild to moderate pain levels.

Tips for Getting the Most out of Holistic Pain Management

  • Create a unique treatment plan. There is no cookie-cutter way to address chronic pain. Each person’s experience is different, thus the combination of holistic treatments and/or medication will vary as well. Even if the first couple attempts do little in terms of pain management, clients are encouraged to try something new and keep modifying their treatment plan as needed.
  • Be patient. It can take time to find the right combination of holistic and traditional treatment methods that will work, and it can take time for those treatment interventions to be effective. Don’t give up!
  • Be open-minded. There are so many different types of holistic treatment options that can be effective for pain management, from different exercises and stretches to herbal supplements and gentle exercise to meditation and bodywork. Clients are encouraged to try a range of different treatments, trying one new option at a time and sticking with it for a few months with regular sessions to determine whether or not it is effective.
  • Include personal therapy in the treatment plan. Many chronic pain issues are driven or exacerbated by underlying mental health issues. For example, depression may contribute to physical pain and may make it more difficult for clients to motivate themselves to try a range of active treatment methods. Additionally, the existence of a mental health issues like depression when coupled with chronic pain may increase the chance of developing a painkiller abuse or addiction issue. Seeing a therapist regularly can help clients to create and modify their unique holistic and alternative treatment plan to manage pain and to stick to it until they see some results.

NOTE: If painkiller abuse or dependence is an issue for you or someone in your family, it is important to speak with the prescribing physician immediately and address the issue.