Patient Education and Chronic Pain

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Chronic pain, defined as pain that lasts longer than six months, is the most common cause of long-term disability and a major contributor to health care costs. As a health care professional, you can help patients with chronic pain through proper education and collaboration to ensure they are given the appropriate treatment while preventing the abuse of pain medication.

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Chronic Pain – By The Numbers

More than 100 million Americans currently suffer from chronic or persistent pain. Additionally, six out of every ten patients experience pain that degrades their quality of life. Sadly, up to 51% of these people have no way of controlling chronic/persistent pain. In addition, 60% of patients experience debilitating pain once or more times every day. Before proceeding further, it is worth noting that physicians grade the intensity of pain on a scale of one to ten One denotes very mild pain. Two denotes minor pain accompanied by occasionally stronger and annoying pain sensations. Three denotes uncomfortable and noticeable pain. Four denotes moderate pain that could be ignored for short periods. Five denotes distracting pain that cannot be ignored for more than a few minutes. Six refers to distressing pain that is likely to hamper one’s ability to perform daily activities. Seven denotes severe pain that dominates other senses and degrades sleep quality. Eight refers to intense pain that could hamper physical activity severely. Nine denotes excruciating pain that is accompanied by uncontrollable crying and communication challenges. Ten refers to an unspeakable level of pain that is likely to leave sufferers in a bedridden and delirious state.

It is worth noting that back pain is the leading cause of disability among Americans under the age of 45. A survey carried out by the American Pain Association (APA) found that 86% of the respondents suffering from chronic pain were unable to sleep well at night, 77% said they were depressed, 70% said they were unable to concentrate, and 59% reported that chronic pain had lowered their ability to enjoy life. Globally, chronic pain is a serious health problem that affects one in every seven people globally. In fact, it is the most common cause of disability across the world.

Types of Chronic Pain

Lower back pain is the most common accounting for 27% of all pain-related health issues. Severe headache and neck pain each account for 15% of chronic pain types. Facial ache is the least common accounting for just 4% of chronic pain problems. The cost of treating chronic pain in America is huge, ranging anywhere from $560 billion to $635 billion every year. To put it in perspective, that is enough money to give every person in America today $2,000.

Leveraging Patient Education to Resolve Chronic Pain

Although conventional medications can help, an effective way of resolving chronic pain is by educating patients on “own care” strategies. In fact, research has shown that own care initiatives lower the risk of depression, reduce pain levels, and enhance physical activity in chronic pain patients. There are several reasons why chronic pain education is necessary. For starters, it empowers the target audience to advocate for better pain control and prevention measures. Good examples include educating Americans on legal ways of accessing tightly controlled pain medications such as opioids as well as how to seek reimbursements tied to interdisciplinary healthcare from health insurers. For patient education to be effective, it must cover pain diagnosis, treatment options, pain side effects, and ways of preventing further health deterioration. This approach would reduce unnecessary hospital admissions, dependence on strong pain drugs, number of hospital visits, as well as time and money spent on pain care.

Pain Management Risk Factors

Pain management could be hampered by erroneous/inadequate pain assessment, patient lifestyles and cultural challenges, differences in information provided to physicians, and erroneous/inadequate understanding of how pain affects patients.

How to Enhance Pain Management among Patients

An effective way of resolving the challenges highlighted in the paragraph above is by basing communication on the VEMA model. The “V” in VEMA stands for validation and it refers to proper validation of pain diagnosis and patient experiences. This should be followed by pain education (E) that is based on relevant safety guidelines, best practices and realistic expectations. Patients also require motivation (M) to ensure that they remain actively engaged in treatment and related processes. Activation is the last VEMA model element and it refers to collaborative (both patient and pain care provider) goal setting that gives the patient some level of control in developing an action plan. Topics that should be covered during chronic pain discussions include pain measurement, different types of pain, patient-driven pain management strategies, pain management benefits, when and how to access emergency care, pain care reimbursements, as well as how and when family members and friends can help.

Chronic Pain Treatment Options

Persistent pain can be treated with conventional medications, surgery, injection, and physical therapy. Alternative treatment options include using natural products (17.7%), deep breathing (10.9%), yoga/Tai Chi/Qi Gong (10.1%), chiropractic techniques (8.4%), meditation (8%), massage (6.9%), special diets (3%), homeopathy (2.2%), progressive relaxation (2.1%), and guided imagery (1.7%).

Pain Treatment Challenges

Almost 72% of physicians say they have inadequate knowledge of pain treatment and opioid dependency management. Lack of patient education is another major drawback that affects three-fourths of chronic pain patients who visit emergency care facilities. In the same vein, the broader public has minimal understanding of pain and treatment options. This leads to underestimation of the way pain affects people 65 years old and younger. Finally, addiction to opioids is a fast-growing problem that affects 3-40% of chronic pain patients according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).


Long-term pain is a huge health problem that currently affects 100 million Americans and consumes $560 to $635 billion annually in medical care costs. Luckily, healthcare practitioners can use patient education that is based on the VEMA communication model to enhance treatment outcomes including reducing the number of unnecessary hospital visits and admissions.