Experts: U.S. can improve pain relief

Medical science has learned a great deal about the causes of pain and ways to relieve it, pain experts say, but for a host of reasons, the treatment of pain and suffering has improved hardly at all in recent years.

John Seffrin, president of the American Cancer Society, calls this “a national health care crisis of under-treated pain.”

“Nearly all cancer pain can be relieved, but fewer than half of our patients report adequate pain relief,” Rebecca Kirch, the society's associate director of policy, told a pain seminar in Washington last week.

Hospitals do a little better than that in managing pain for patients with all kinds of illnesses, according to a survey to be published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The survey of hospitals in 40 metropolitan areas by the Harvard School of Public Health found that one-third of patients felt that their pain wasn't well controlled. The percentage of those who were satisfied by their pain care ranged from 72 percent in Birmingham, Ala., to 57 percent in New York City hospitals.

At least 76 million Americans suffer chronic pain, including as much as three-quarters of people who are older than 65, said Dr. Ann Berger, the chief of pain and palliative care at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

“Pain is the most common complaint for which individuals seek medical attention,” said Dr. Howard Heit, a chronic-pain specialist at Georgetown University in Washington.

“Considering the available research and medical technology we have today, it's a travesty that in 2008 so many pain sufferers are untreated or under-treated because of lack of awareness, education and misconceptions about pain and pain treatment,” said Kathryn Walker, the president of the Maryland Pain Initiative, a volunteer organization of state pain experts in Baltimore.