Better funding for evidence-based treatments will improve health of chronic pain sufferers

Chronic pain affects one in five Australians, rising to one in three for those aged over 65. Its impact on individuals, families and the wider community can’t be overestimated. During National Pain Week (22-28 July) the Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) is calling on the federal government to properly fund evidence-based treatments like physiotherapy that support the complex multidisciplinary care requirements of people living with this debilitating condition.

Chronic pain is Australia’s third most costly health burden and the leading cause of early retirement and work absenteeism, costing the economy more than $73 billion per year. Levels of psychological distress are six times higher for those living with chronic pain, while 40% of sufferers report symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.

Too many Australians living with chronic pain are unable to access best practice pain management treatments, often the result of non-subsidised treatment costs and lack of accessibility to skilled health care providers. This gap in health care often leads to further decline in the health of sufferers as services are not delivered in appropriate clinical timeframes, leading to significant physical and psychological ill health, family stress and the risk of unemployment.

Dianne Wilson, chair of the APA Pain group, says:

We need to turn around the cycle of increasing disability that many chronic pain sufferers become part of, simply because they are unable to access the best treatments when they need them. Physiotherapists should be part of every health team treating chronic pain.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, maintaining movement is the best thing people in chronic pain can do. Physiotherapists have the clinical expertise to educate patients and guide them through a supervised exercise program, pacing and grading the program to suit their individual needs.

Importantly, physios can offer education and reassurance to patients who fear that exercise will increase their pain. We see many patients who come into our clinics with a very significant fear of pain, and as a result they tend to avoid any type of movement or exercise. Movement helps the body heal and boosts the immune system. Avoiding healthy activities often leads to an increase of disability and further loss of well-being”.

A survey by Chronic Pain Australia showed that while the majority of people suffering chronic pain wanted to continue to see allied health professionals, including physiotherapists, they found these services to be unaffordable due to their lack of government subsidy.

Medicare funding for chronic pain services occurs via a Chronic Disease Management Plan provided by a patient’s GP, allowing for five sessions of physiothereapy or other allied health treatment. However, Dianne says this simply skims the surface of what is needed to make a meaningful difference.

“It’s imperative chronic pain is addressed in the same way as a diabetes or mental health management plan so that adequate physiotherapy treatments are subsidized and delivered in a multi-disciplinary model. Ideally, we’ll get to a point where risk factors for the development of chronic pain are identified and managed early, thus eliminating chronicity altogether. In the meantime, properly funding evidence based health treatments for those who are in significant pain is the only way to support their improved health, quality of life and reintegration into their communities.”

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