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A third of UK pain sufferers worry about dependency on painkillers…

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Manoj Krishna Nuffield Heath Tees HospitalA third of people using medication to treat pain are worried about their dependency on the drugs to manage their daily lives, according to a study by Nuffield Health, the UK’s largest healthcare charity.  The study also reveals that almost two in five people (37 per cent) say they require painkillers to continue working.

The figures are a snap shot of painkiller use across the UK, and show frequent and long-term use of potentially addictive drugs to be commonplace. Clinicians at Nuffield Health say painkillers are often seen as an easy or cost effective treatment option instead of treating underlying medical problems.

Of the total 3100 people surveyed, more than half – 1659 – were managing pain or injury with painkillers in the last year.  Based on interviews with these, the figures show that one in seven (14 per cent) admitted exceeding the recommended safe dose of painkiller, and almost a quarter (23 per cent) said they take between five and ten painkillers a day.

According to the research, a quarter of people (26 per cent) have been taking painkillers for more than five years.  Among this group of long-term users, the number concerned about dependency rises to almost four in ten (38 per cent).

More than one in three people (36 per cent) using painkillers are taking strong and potentially habit forming drugs, including Codeine and Tramadol to manage their pain or injury.  A smaller group (7 per cent) are using even stronger opiates, including morphine and pethidine, and one in ten (10 per cent) said they use sleeping pills.

Experts say patients need to be aware of the side-effects of taking painkillers, which can cause sickness, stomach problems, including bleeding or ulcers, constipation, drowsiness or serious medical problems like liver disease, kidney problems and heart disease.

Consultant Spinal Surgeon at Nuffield Heath Tees Hospital, Mr Manoj Krishna, said “A lack of knowledge, or fear of treatment, can lead patients into long term use of painkillers, often without a clear diagnosis by a specialist.  This can be a very bleak existence with patients becoming depressed, losing their jobs, and often becoming dependent on the drugs. I regularly see patients who struggle to deal with drug addiction after their medical condition has been successfully treated.  With advances in medicine it is important that patients explore their options fully.  Surgery, physiotherapy or an effective exercise programme may be more appropriate.   In the 21st Century in a country with a world class health service, our patients in pain deserve a better deal.”

Of those experiencing pain, almost two thirds sought treatment from a GP, with one in six (16 per cent) unhappy with the outcome; a third (32 per cent) cited only being prescribed painkillers as the source of their frustration, while a quarter (25 per cent) thought their doctor lacked enough knowledge about their condition.

Of those who did find a solution, a fifth (19 per cent) used physiotherapy while 7 per cent had surgery.  Less than a fifth (17 per cent) said their pain or injury recovered over time, suggesting long term use of painkillers is not a suitable treatment option.

Cabella Lowe, Head of Physiotherapy Services at Nuffield Health said: “Worries about dependency are staggeringly high and match an increasing trend for people to use painkillers as a solution.    Any concerns people have about their reliance on painkillers should be addressed urgently with a GP.   It is surprising that only a fifth of people are treating pain with physiotherapy and we believe more people could benefit from seeing a physiotherapist.  The most important action is to seek expert advice quickly as research shows that early intervention is key to getting rid of pain. ”

The repercussions from failing to find a curative treatment are also revealed:  Of those still reporting pain or injury; 40 per cent are suffering sleeping problems, with one in ten (10 per cent) using sleeping pills; 40 per cent are unable to exercise; and one in six (16 per cent) report suffering from depression.

The study also flags up significant regional variation, with Londoners most likely to be concerned about their dependency on painkillers –39 per cent.  The North East has the highest numbers – 43 per cent – managing pain with stronger painkillers like codeine and Tramadol, with nearly a quarter (24 per cent) admitting to taking more than the safe recommended dose – the highest number in the UK.  Workers in the Capital (44 per cent) and the West Midlands (42 per cent) are most likely to take pills to enable them to work.

Hannah Meeson, spinal surgery patient, said:  “I had severe low back pain and leg pain for 10 years. I was severely depressed and taking 36 tablets a day, as well as permanent Fentanyl patches, which were a similar dosage as those prescribed to terminally ill patients.  I was told by many doctors that nothing more could be done for me.  I never gave up hope and eventually found a specialist to help me. Six years ago I had surgery and now have no pain. Over the last 6 years I have saved the NHS from prescribing me almost 80,000 tablets.”

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