The Patients Association has called on the Government to create a clear care pathway for chronic pain services throughout the National Health Service, after a survey of more than 4,000 patients revealed significant shortcomings in care. 

Around 7.8 million people are affected by chronic pain - classed as continuous, long-term pain lasting more than 12 weeks or after the expected time of healing following trauma or surgery has elapsed - on a daily basis, and yet there is only one pain specialist available for every 32,000 sufferers, the survey, sponsored by a grant from Napp Pharmaceuticals, has revealed.

A stream of further worrying results were uncovered by the report: 32% of patients were unsure how to use prescribed medication; 57% were unsure about potential side effects of pain medication; only a quarter of chronic pain sufferers had been referred to a pain specialist; and a third of patients were not taking medicines as prescribed by their GPs.

The findings highlight that there is much room for improvement in the care of patients with chronic pain, not only for the good of patients but also because the economic costs associated with the condition are not to be sneezed at. The total expense to the NHS and economy has not been determined, but it is known that adolescent chronic pain costs the NHS around £3.8 billion, while back pain - which accounts for over 4.9 million annual sick days - costs the economy £5 billion a year.

Shocking disparity

“This report reveals the shocking disparity of pain management services across the UK," noted Katherine Murphy, head of the Patients Association, and consequently the group is calling for better information for patients to be able to make informed choices and complete decisions about their care, as well as a greater emphasis on pain management in the training of healthcare professionals.

Furthermore, Murphy argues that the current pain pathway is "confusing and not clearly defined", and stressed that, with the switch to GP commissioning, "it is essential that the new NHS Commissioning Board issues GPs with a clear description of the pain pathway and guidance as to how GPs should commission pain services".