Nearly half of UK adults live, and work, with chronic pain

Almost half of adults in the UK, some 28 million people, live with chronic pain, researchers have argued. But what is it that makes some people carrying on struggling into work against the odds, and others quickly to decide it is all too much?

These astonishing findings come from research part-funded by the charity Arthritis Research UK and published on the website BMJ Open.

The study calculated that between a third and half of UK adults experience pain that lasts for more than three months, with conditions such as arthritis a particular problem.

The figures have also suggested the number of people living with chronic pain are significant higher than previously thought, almost triple the number in fact.

Researchers looked at data from 19 studies involving around 140,000 people and concluded some 43% of the estimated 65 million people in the UK experienced some form of chronic pain, while 14% lived with chronic widespread pain. Women were more likely than men to be affected by chronic pain, irrespective of age or pain type, it added.

Intriguingly, the research also indicated there had been a gradually increasing prevalence of chronic pain over time, from 1990 onwards.

“Such prevalence data does not itself define need for care or targets for prevention, but reliable information on prevalence will help to drive public health and healthcare policymakers’ prioritisation of this important cause of distress and disability in the general population,” the report concluded.

These findings have come as research by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute has separately suggested that people whose jobs involve carrying out repetitive physical tasks could be at an elevated risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

It concluded that exposure to repeated vibration, carrying or lifting weights greater than 10kg, bending/turning and working with hands either below knee level or above shoulder level were all associated with an elevated risk of developing the disease.

And both these follow separate research published earlier this year by the think-tank The Work Foundation which argued the UK economy and health services risked being “overwhelmed” by the effect of chronic and long-term health conditions.

The British Pain Society, in turn, estimates that some 10 million Britons suffer pain almost daily.

Clearly, dealing with and successfully managing chronic pain within the workplace poses immediate and ongoing challenges for employers and workplace health professionals around workplace adjustment and intervention. This is likely to be especially the case as our working population ages.

But there is also a wider issue here, potentially. Despite all our medical advances in recent years, our knowledge of how pain actually works is still relatively scarce. What is it that drives some people with chronic, painful conditions stubbornly to struggle to stay in gainful employment while, for others with similar conditions, the prospect becomes rapidly untenable?

This is, at one level, dangerous territory to be straying into, given that it can very easily fall into a discussion about “strivers” and “shirkers” or people’s appetite to work, even when managing a chronic and painful condition themselves.

But it is nevertheless an intriguing area of debate that could warrant further research. Especially in light of the mounting challenge presented to employers of managing an increasingly ageing workforce.

A number of factors formed outside the workplace that impact resilience within the workplace could be looked at: What is the role, for example, of individual, societal or cultural expectation? What about our own upbringing and the values, how much does that play a part in how we manage and live with chronic pain and ongoing health conditions? Or both?

And, equally, what is it about pain itself, how does it work and why is it that some people manage pain in different ways to others?

None of these, we very much suspect, will be easy questions to answer – they may not even have a consistent or definitive “answer” anyway.

Nevertheless, gaining a better understanding of these factors and how pain works would undoubtedly be invaluable for employers as our working population ages. 

And in the interim?  Active support from an employer, including adjustments, workplace health interventions and accommodations (such as flexible working) will always be a good approach to support an employee to remain in work in spite of a chronic health condition, including pain. Equally important, societal and cultural conditioning can be balanced within a workplace culture that encourages openness and transparency of discussion.

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