Chintada: Pain is becoming a public health crisis

Latavya Chintada, Staff Writer

Pain is a universal experience. We’ve all experienced some sort of pain, whether it’s scraping your knee as a kid, getting sick or even experiencing grief—which is emotional pain. Although pain is common among us all, it manifests and presents itself differently in each person. Because pain is so individual, it’s part of what makes it a significant public health crisis. 

Firstly, there are significant disparities in how different demographics are treated for pain. Vulnerable populations, such as low-income individuals, children and people of color, are most at risk for mistreatment of pain, due to societal biases manifesting in healthcare. For instance, women of color are often most ignored when they report their pain. They are either not taken seriously, completely ignored or even accused of falsely complaining for attention and drugs. Ultimately, societal biases cause more physical pain as well as emotional trauma because patients feel belittled. 

In fact, for the longest time, physicians thought Black people were less sensitive to pain than other races, which is a huge falsity, with ramifications that remain to this day. This was even taught in medical schools, resulting in generations of physicians learning this gross misconception. Due to this bias, Black people and other people of color have been continuously denied the pain medications they need. Additionally, there also seems to be a worse stereotype—that certain minorities are drug-seeking addicts when they come in for a pain problem. Historically, the opioid crisis may have exacerbated this stereotype because minority communities were disproportionately affected by the drug, as a result of generational poverty and lack of community infrastructure. The opioid crisis also has made healthcare professionals more hesitant to out pain medications due to their high risk of abuse. However, that is no excuse to deny or ignore people’s needs, and racial bias should stay out of healthcare judgment.

Besides social reasons for pain mismanagement, treating pain is extremely expensive for the country. This is not only due to medical tests and fees, but also to the loss of productivity. This expense possibly contributes to why healthcare professionals are reluctant to examine and treat pain. However, pain is also tough to treat. Unless it has physical manifestations, such as redness, swelling, heat, or another visible sign, it is hard to confirm whether or not someone is feeling pain. Furthermore, since pain is a subjective experience, it is impossible to infer someone’s pain levels just by looking at them—making phantom or nerve pains difficult to diagnose and treat. The one to 10 pain scale helps to some degree in determining a patient’s pain levels, but unfortunately, it is not enough to prevent pain mismanagement or help us better understand another individual’s pain. 

Ultimately, pain is a systemic issue. While technological advancements in medicine are important and needed, there also needs to be societal solutions to managing pain as a public health crisis. Community-based programs centered around coping with pain would be effective, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Substance use prevention would also help mitigate the issue of pain. Moreover, healthcare professionals should be well-versed in cultural competency and understand how pain presents in individuals of different backgrounds. Healthcare professionals need to learn more about pain prevention and how to treat pain efficiently and cost-effectively. Additionally, seeing more diversity in medicine by eliminating the classist barriers to medical education would allow for more perspective in pain treatment. While these are only suggestions, they would hopefully start to mitigate pain as a public health crisis if implemented as solutions.