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Experiencing chronic pain helped me understand it better

Do healthcare professionals really appreciate the impact of living with chronic pain?

Back pain is a common problem that may result in disability and missed work but it is also something we can be dismissive of.

I recently experienced an eight-week period of acute onset back pain for the first time in my life and I will from now on always have empathy and understanding of the impact such pain can have on someone’s life.

I was particularly struck by the impact of not being able to do simple things like putting on my socks. The psychological impact and anxiety that came from prolonged, severe pain and having restricted mobility also affected me greatly.

As we know, many people live with chronic pain and it is likely that they will also experience mental health issues resulting in depression and anxiety as well as social isolation from the stigma attached to having ‘a bad back’.

The need for prompt assessment, reassurance and advice with exercise in the early stages of back pain cannot be underestimated.

Depending on where you live it can take many weeks to access a physiotherapist and not everyone can afford to pay privately for such services.

Many areas are under immense pressure resulting in waiting lists for physiotherapy and often the burden is left to GPs to manage this in primary care – often with painkillers and anti depressants. But is this the best approach and does such management lead to further problems?

More innovative practices are offering direct referral recognising the need for prompt access to physiotherapy and importantly reducing unnecessary appointments with a GP so they are able to see more complex, acutely ill patients promptly.

NICE has produced guidance for managing low back pain and sciatica in over 16 year olds. NHS Choices also have a wealth of information and resources to help patients self manage the pain and remain active.

For me, access to physiotherapy in my place of work was a real benefit and resulted in me not having to take time off work and make a much more speedy recovery.

Even though there was a cost involved I was prepared to pay this rather than wait several weeks for an NHS physiotherapy appointment.

Sadly not everyone has this option and it does beg the question of further inequality in accessing services at the point of need but maybe that is for another blog!

As we know, keeping people fit, active and in employment has a significant impact upon their health and wellbeing – and greatly reduces their need for public services. Back pain alone is currently estimated to contribute to 20% of the UK’s total health expenditure.

Commissioners need to address this issue urgently, especially given that the necessary services have a relatively low cost but would result in long-term improved outcomes for those suffering from chronic pain.

Donna Davenport is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Health, Psychology & Social Care at Manchester Metropolitan University