Pain management did not become a recognized specialty in Western medicine until the 1960s. Even at that, pain management wasn't a specialty that a lot of doctors pursued. Only within the last 10 years or so has pain management been recognized as important to helping patients maintain optimal health.
If there are any questions about why Western medicine should continue developing pain management therapies, a study out of the UK provides some insight. The study suggests that the experience of chronic pain in one's 40s can lead to illness and disease in one's 50s.
Extrapolating from the study suggests that getting a handle on chronic pain as early as possible could limit its impacts later in life. Effective pain management can essentially act as a preventative strategy for people in, or approaching, middle age.
The study in question utilized health records and surveys from more than 12,000 patients born during a specific week in 1958. All were born in England, Wales, or Scotland.
Researchers compared survey data collected in 2003 with patient medical records at three age intervals: 50, 55, and 62. The results were quite surprising:
The overall conclusion reached by the researchers was that chronic pain in one's younger years is associated with poor physical and mental health in one's later years.
We can think of two possible explanations that account for the association between chronic pain and poor mental and physical health in the future. Let us start with physical health.
As pain management doctors, we treat patients who find it very difficult to live functional lives due to their pain. Unfortunately, there's a common scenario we observe all too often: pain leads to inactivity, inactivity leads to a loss of function, and loss of function creates more pain.
As a general rule, a pain clinic's primary mission is to help patients feel better and restore as much function as possible. Where that doesn't happen, inactivity and poor lifestyle choices are not uncommon. Poor physical health becomes more likely.
Mental health is also affected by chronic pain. As any chronic pain patient will testify, constantly dealing with pain takes a mental toll. Constant pain is mentally exhausting. It is frustrating. It can absolutely have a negative impact on a patient's outlook.
When left unmanaged, pain can leave a patient feeling less and less optimistic about the future. This can ultimately lead to a variety of mental health conditions, not the least of which are depression and anxiety.
No medical intervention is guaranteed to work in every case. But if chronic pain in one's younger years is a true precursor to future physical and mental health problems, it only stands to reason that early intervention should be a priority.
Early intervention focused on pain management should help most patients cope with their pain as effectively as possible. Where significant relief is found, patients are more likely to remain active and functional. And remaining active should reduce the risks of future health concerns.
There is still a lot to learn about pain management and how it affects future outcomes. But based on the UK study, it would seem that figuring out how to manage pain as early as possible leads to better future outcomes.