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Do Doctors Believe the Pain?

There can be many challenges that arise when living with a chronic condition. Some may be short-lived, while others may become part of a person’s daily life. One of the common, long-term experiences is chronic pain.

To find out more about this experience, we surveyed nearly 5,000 people living with a chronic condition and long-term pain. Many people who participated in our Chronic Pain In America Survey explained how their long-term pain has affected their relationships with their doctors and healthcare providers.

Why are people not seeing their doctor for pain?

There are many reasons why people with chronic pain might be seeing a doctor to manage their pain less or not at all. Many people shared that 1 of the most common reasons for not seeing a doctor for pain was overall dissatisfaction. This may be frustration that a doctor does not take a patient seriously when it comes to pain or is unable to provide pain relief.

Some people even felt like their doctors were disrespectful when it came to managing pain.

  • 54 percent said their doctors have made them feel like drug seekers at some point.
  • 66 percent said the current opioid epidemic has made this sense of judgment worse.
  • 31 percent said they avoid asking their doctors for pain medication because they worry they will be treated like drug seekers.

These responses show that potential stigma and misunderstanding from doctors is a barrier to people finding and talking about care to manage pain.

Other reasons people do not see a doctor for pain included:

  • Cost
  • Lack of insurance
  • Controlling pain with alternative therapies
  • Difficulty traveling to an appointment
  • Learning to cope with the pain on their own

Discussions about pain with doctors

Only 54 percent of people felt that they and their doctors were in agreement about their levels of pain. About half said their doctors had talked to them about the potential side effects of pain medications, the risk of addiction to specific pain medications, pain treatment options, and changes in pain levels. This means that half of all people are not having these discussions or feel as though they and their doctors are not on the same page.

  • 44 percent said their doctors ask them how their pain impacts their quality of life.
  • 43 percent said their doctors work with them to develop a pain management plan that fits with their lifestyles and preferences.
  • 40 percent said their doctors recommend or encourage alternative treatments.
  • 36 percent said their doctors have developed plans that meet their needs and manage pain.

These results show that discussions and understanding of chronic pain are not common. There is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to talking about treatment options, effectiveness, side effects, and alternative therapies.

People with chronic pain want doctors to be more understanding

When asked what the thing they wished their doctors knew about them and their pain, people said they wished their doctors were more understanding. Things people wished their doctors understood included:

  • Their pain is severe.
  • Pain can be excruciating, debilitating, and exhausting.
  • They are not faking their pain or symptoms.
  • They are not drug seekers and are only looking for ways to cope with and stop their pain.

Many also wished their doctors would spend more time listening to them about their chronic pain. Other people shared that they feel their doctors have condescending and judgmental attitudes about their pain. These issues often cause barriers to people having open, honest conversations with their doctors about their chronic pain.

Pain is more than physical

Many people also wished their doctor realized that their pain is much more than physical. Answers about how pain affects the lives of those living with it included:

  • Ruins one’s quality of life
  • Constant fear that the pain will never go away
  • Causes them to miss out on important life events
  • Impacts their marriage
  • Interferes with being independent
  • Makes it hard to take care of children
  • Impacts mental health
  • Has taken away much of the joy in their life
  • Difficulty waking up every day in pain

Each of these experiences can take a serious toll on outlook and well-being.

If you or a loved one are experiencing many of these frustrations of living with chronic pain, you are not alone. How do you navigate conversations with your doctor about pain? Are they supportive, or are there things you wish would improve in you and your doctor's relationship and pain management?

The Chronic Pain In America survey took place from mid-September through mid-October of 2019. The 4,725 respondents were recruited from Health Union’s Community channels as well as the U.S. Pain Foundation.

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