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Quarter of a million Irish fail to seek help for debilitating back pain - survey

With 80 per cent of those suffering nerve-related back pain aged under 50, chronic pain is thought to be significantly impacting people’s personal and professional lives.

Image: Valerie Everett via Creative Commons/Flickr

AS MANY AS 250,000 people in Ireland suffering from nerve-related back pain do not seek medical assistance for their condition because they do not believe it is “serious enough” to warrant treatment, according to a new survey.

Nerve-related back pain is frequently under-diagnosed or mis-diagnosed, despite the fact that an estimated 400,000 people suffer from chronic back pain in Ireland, the survey by Chronic Pain and Pfizer found.

Doctors have warned that chronic pain of this kind can impact greatly on people’s quality of life, as well as their personal and professional relationships.

The Irish survey, which was part of a wider analysis commissioned by Pfizer across 10 European countries, found that:

  • Lower back pain was the most common type of back pain (40 per cent) in the Irish sample
  • 48 per cent of the Irish people surveyed had suffered from back pain for more than five years
  • 68 per cent suffered from back pain at least once a week or more
“The under and misdiagnosis of this type of back pain has a significant negative impact on the daily lives of thousands of Irish people,” said Dr Paul Murphy, St Vincent’s University Hospital, Head of Education for Faculty for Pain Medicine in Ireland, commented.

“We now have a range of effective screening tools available and coupled with following guidelines closely, Irish doctors have a responsibility to quickly diagnose and find the right treatment to ease the burden of chronic back pain,” he added.

Reporting chronic back pain

The majority of patients surveyed said that they consulted their GPs within four weeks of suffering ongoing back pain, and that seven out of ten sufferers took painkillers before consulting a doctor

Of those who sought medical advice, the vast majority (84.6 per cent) received an explanation for their back pain and almost 40 per cent of those were offered the term “lower back pain” as an explanation to describe their condition.

However, the survey also found that discrepancies between terms used to describe nerve-related back pain revealed “major communication issues” between healthcare professionals and patients. Doctors were found to favour terms such as ‘like an electric shock’, ‘painful pins and needles’ and ‘burning’, while patients were more likely to describe the pain as ‘persistent’, ‘sharp’ or ‘shooting’.

The survey also found that:

  • GPs only refer cases that are not responsive to treatments or that they regard as too serious or complex: up to 20 per cent of patients were referred to another speciality last year – mainly to pain specialists (89.5 per cent) and neurosurgeons (73.7 per cent)
  • A majority of patients (61.6 per cent) had to wait for over a month for a specific diagnosis, and a quarter were forced to wait for longer
  • Patients were mainly given pain relief medications (53.8 per cent) as a treatment for their nerve related back pain, but time off work, or rest, (30.8 per cent) was also recommended

All healthcare professionals surveyed said they considered nerve-related back pain to have “severe or moderate impact on patients’ quality of life” and all also agreed that patients’ ability to go to work was affected by such pain.

They said that 69 per cent of nerve-related back pain patients requested time away from work last year, and explained that such pain caused such patients to feel tired (66.7 per cent) and affected their ability to engage in sports or hobbies (44.4 per cent).

Almost half (48 per cent) of patients surveyed said they had given up hobbies to cope with their back pain.

The cost of chronic back pain

The survey found that people suffering from chronic back pain took an average of 11 days off work, and that their productivity was affected for an average of 26 days.  The prevalence of nerve-related back pain in working people was particularly significant as 80 per cent of those affected were aged under 50.

The cost of chronic back pain (defined as pain that lasts longer than 12 weeks) is estimated to total €5.34 billion per year – or the equivalent of 2.86 per cent of Ireland’s GDP in 2008, according to the Journal of Pain.

The survey’s researchers say that, in 2002, the national annual cost of claims for personal injury in Ireland was in excess of €2 billion, with 22 per cent of those costs due to back pain caused by poor manual handling.

Chronic pain also results in other costs to the Exchequer: researchers pointed out that the cost for disability benefit for chronic low back pain totalled €348 million in 2002, and added that 27 per cent of people receiving income support do so due to chronic back pain – making it the highest single reason for people claiming income support.

Gina Plunkett, Chairperson of Chronic Pain Ireland, said  the perception that people with chronic pain are unable or unwilling to work is wrong:

Many pain sufferers are productive, talented and committed employees with the same aspirations and ambitions as people without chronic pain and shouldn’t be limited by their condition. Yet the system is failing many people living with pain – preventing them from playing their full part in the nation’s workforce.

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The Irish survey, which was part of a wider analysis commissioned by Pfizer across 10 European countries1, found that:

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