Australia Chronic pain sufferers waiting a year for help, as doctors call for more services
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Peter Matthews has only managed about two hours of sleep a night since being struck down with debilitating pain in August.
The Toowoomba man, 65, was diagnosed with a compressed spinal nerve in his neck and has been taking potent medication to help manage the pain, but it has offered little relief.
"It was like being hit with an electric fence," Mr Matthews said.
"I've never experienced pain quite like this...it's like a jolting pain and you can't just ignore it.
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"The main issue is sleep. I'm lucky to get two hours a night.
"Sleep deprivation, it's the worst thing."
Mr Matthews said he sought out a pain management specialist, a health professional who helps coordinate care, only to find himself at the end of a 20-month-long public waiting list in Brisbane.
According to advocacy group Pain Australia, Mr Matthews is among more than three million Australians suffering from chronic pain who are waiting at least a year to be seen at public pain clinics.
CEO Carol Bennett said a recent ban on the prescription of opioids and the coronavirus pandemic had pushed public services to breaking point.
"For some of those clinics, they're losing doctors, and their capacity to continue to be able to support people who need support for very complex pain conditions is much more limited," Ms Bennett said.
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Ms Bennett said without specialist help, some people suffering from chronic pain struggled to cope.
"They're moving onto antidepressants, some anti-psychotics. Many people are self-medicating with alcohol and other illicit drugs," she said.
"We've (also) seen increased levels of anxiety, depression and suicidality, which is a real concern."
While the private health system was an option for some patients, Ms Bennet said it was inaccessible to many people due to cost or geography.
"The treatments are a little more expensive and the out-of-pocket costs are quite high," she said.
"And often, the pain clinics are located in the major cities, so anyone outside of those major built-up areas is unlikely to be able to get access to good specialist pain management.
"We've heard about waiting times up to four, five years in some parts of Australia."
Toowoomba GP Allan Wong said without dedicated pain management services in the city, the referral process was frustrating and time-consuming.
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"I had a patient recently who had pain in his neck. I've referred him off to physiotherapists, he's seeing a psychologist and he's just seen the pain specialist," Dr Wong said.
"But I had to do all those myself individually, referring them off to those people... If you can refer them up just to the one clinic, it's all done in-house and happens a lot faster."
He said regional cities and towns needed more specialists to help meet the demand for pain management services.
"We've got one person, that's obviously not enough for a city the size of Toowoomba," he said.
"It would be great to have a clinic set up at the [Toowoomba Base Hospital], so that we can refer people [for] chronic pain assessment."
The Federal Government said pain management was a key focus of efforts to reduce the impact of chronic conditions on the community.
A spokesperson for Health Minister Greg Hunt said $4.3 million had been allocated in last year's budget to expand pain management services, and a National Strategic Action Plan had been developed.
"The action plan will soon be considered in an out-of-session by state and territory health ministers," the spokesperson said.
"This increased funding will support additional specialist pain management services with service delivery to be prioritised to regional, rural and remote areas with the highest need."
Peter Matthews said he had finally got an appointment with a private pain management specialist in Toowoomba and was undergoing treatment, providing temporary relief from the pain.
Mr Matthews said hoped his case would encourage governments to invest more in pain services.
"You have got to have hope. You've got to have a light at the end of the tunnel, otherwise it's just intolerable," he said.
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