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The Silent Illness That Kills Three Australians Every Day

As many as 3.24 million Australians live with chronic pain, reducing both their quality of life and their life expectancy.

Unless significant and immediate changes are made to Australia's healthcare system, that number is expected to soar to more than 5 million by 2050.

Those living with chronic pain can experience anything from constant headaches to backaches, arthritis or pelvic pain.

“Chronic pain can reduce a person’s ability to work, disturb sleep and cause fatigue, and have a detrimental impact on relationships,” Malcolm Hogg, Head of Pain Services at Melbourne Health and Painaustralia Director said.

Chronic Pain
Image: Painaustralia
Chronic Pain Kills Three Australians Every Day

A new report by Painaustralia and Deloitte Access Economics, launched by Health Minister Greg Hunt on Thursday, shows living with chronic pain is inextricably linked to a number of other life-threatening illness.

READ MORE: One Week In My Life With Chronic Pain

More than 70 percent of people with chronic pain are prescribed opioid medications to manage the condition. Prolonged use of opioids is not considered best practice but is one of few affordable treatments in Australia.

But long-term medication use is a big killer.

"It's the long-term use of opioids that lead to the three deaths a day in Australia," Painaustralia CEO Carol Bennett told 10 daily.

The report found there were 823 deaths and 3011 hospitalisations for prescription opioid misuse in 2017-18, costing the health system $13.4 million. A further 10,756 Australians used medicines to treat opioid misuse, at a cost of $60 million.

Chronic Pain
Image: Painaustralia

"We need to see awareness and getting people to take an active approach to manage their illness, not a passive one with things like medication and surgery so we can stop it going from acute illness to a chronic one," Bennett said.

An active approach includes involving multidisciplinary services like physiotherapists, psychologists, nutritionists, and exercise physiologists.

"It's such a complex condition and every case is so different and people need different kinds of treatments to manage their conditions," Bennett said.

However, just one in 100 people with chronic pain receive the multidisciplinary care they need, she added. As well as a lack of pain specialists, particularly in rural areas, the financial cost of managing such a condition is a barrier to many.

"[Chronic pain management] is just not supported, it's not funded so this approach is simply out of reach for so many people."

Mental Illness And Chronic Pain 'Inextricably Linked'

Close to half of Australians with chronic pain also live with depression or anxiety and are two to three times more likely to be suicidal, partly due to stigma related to the 'invisible illness'.

Chronic Pain
Image: Painaustralia

This number is expected to rise from 1.45 million to 2.3 million if access to mental health support isn't made available.

"They feel ashamed, they feel like they are going to be judged, they are unable to function well at work or in their relationships," Bennett said.

READ MORE: How Pain In John's Testicles Drained His Will To Live

Chronic Pain Affects All Australians Financially

Chronic pain costs Australian taxpayers a whopping $139.3 billion. That's only set to rise by $76 million by 2050 if newer treatments aren't adapted.

The report revealed Australian patients shelled out $2.7 billion just last year to manage their pain. This cost to both individuals and taxpayers can be attributed to the lack of specific care available to those with chronic pain conditions, with just 316 pain specialists qualified to treat the condition across the country.

Chronic Pain
Image: Painaustralia

Bennett said Painaustralia welcomed the $6.8 million in funding for the sector announced in Tuesday's federal budget.

READ MORE: The Neverending Battle To Accept The Chronic-ness Of Chronic Pain

"Any increase is better than what we have in the area at the moment," Bennett said.

"I don't think there has been a federal budget announcement about chronic pain management ever and this is the problem that we face. There has been no investment or leadership in the past."

In addition to the call for increased awareness about the debilitating nature of chronic pain, Painaustralia is calling for access to multidisciplinary care to be doubled for patients and upskilling GPs so more cases of chronic pains can be managed as soon as they are presented.

Contact Siobhan at skenna@networkten.com.au