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Fewer than 1 in 5 names chronic pain as a 'major health problem' in the US, says poll

More than 1 in 3 respondents in a recent poll said they'd consider trying acupuncture to treat chronic pain, which not even 1 in 5 respondents named as a major health problem in the United States.
More than 1 in 3 respondents in a recent poll said they'd consider trying acupuncture to treat chronic pain, which not even 1 in 5 respondents named as a major health problem in the United States.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

More than 1,000 people were polled on what they perceived as major health problems in the United States.

About 6 in 10 said cancer. More than half named heart disease and diabetes. Nearly half said drug addiction, and more than 1 in 3 said depression, alcoholism and Alzheimer's disease.

But only 18 percent – not even 1 in 5 – named chronic pain.

The poll was conducted by Research!America, a non-profit that advocates to make health a national priority.

Pollsters also found that 60 percent of respondents said chronic pain "tends to be dismissed by doctors and the public." More than 60 percent also said they knew someone with pain "so severe that they sought prescription medications to treat it."

Dr. David Noya, a family physician at South Central Family Health Center, said chronic pain is common among his patient population. He estimates that about 30 percent of the clinic's patients experience it in some form, and a lot of those patients have other chronic conditions, like diabetes or high blood pressure.

"The most common chronic pain would be low back pain or arthritis pain in our elderly population," he said. "It's pretty routine that we would see that on a regular basis, every day."

That's a quick way to worsen a person's quality of life, said Noya, who noted that depression is often an underlying cause of chronic pain. It can also make managing other medical conditions difficult.

"When you find [patients] are in pain, their diseases are harder to control and manage because of that, or they're noncompliant [with medications or treatments] because they don't have the energy and don't feel well," he said.

As to whether this sort of pain tends to be dismissed, especially relative to other health problems, Noya said that's "definitely" true.

"Either the patient may think that this is something I just have to live with, or the [health] provider may not focus the point of the visit toward dealing with that chronic pain condition because they're dealing with other chronic diseases," he said.

"It's not really considered a disease," he added. "But it does need to be managed, and oftentimes we find providers who don't want to manage it, and they're not comfortable prescribing narcotics to control pain. And oftentimes we do need to do that."

A better understanding of how to deal with patients living with chronic pain needs to make its way into provider training, said Noya.


When the poll's respondents were asked about the treatments they'd be willing to try to relieve chronic pain, more than 60 percent named physical therapy, and more than half mentioned over-the-counter pain medication or changing their lifestyle.

A little less than half said they'd be willing to see a chiropractor or try prescription medication; more than 1 in 3 named herbal remedies or acupuncture.

Dr. Noya said while a lot of South L.A. patients may not have access to a physical therapist, exercise is key.

"Sometimes it's not as intuitive–'my back hurts, so I'm not going to exercise'," he said. "But that can actually help strengthen those muscles in the back specifically, so there may be less pain with that. Aquatic exercise helps, too, for people that have joint pain. You want to keep things moving."

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication with ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help, but using too much can harm organs or cause ulcers, Noya said. He recommended that anyone who's been exercising and using OTC medication for a month without a substantial reduction in pain see a provider, because the next step may be prescription pain relievers.

As far as herbal remedies and acupuncture, Noya called himself a "firm believer" in the complementariness of Eastern and Western medicine, and said if someone has access to those kinds of remedies, they should try them.

"But at the same time, if someone is on herbal medicine, they also need to make sure their doctor or provider knows what they're on because those are not without side effects and can interact with other medicine," he said.

Same goes for acupuncture: As long as a patient has consulted a traditional health provider and lets that provider know of the plan, Noya said it's perfectly fine to give that a shot.