The Importance of Treating and Managing Chronic Pain in Rural America

September is Pain Awareness Month. It’s a time dedicated to raising awareness of the unique needs of individual patients living with chronic pain. It’s a time to gather support for the caretakers of those living with chronic pain, as well as the physicians and health care professionals working to treat their symptoms and underlying causes. And it’s a time to band together to encourage our lawmakers to continue to support the development of new and effective therapies and non-opioid treatment options for pain.

While chronic pain and pain management is a very real challenge for millions of Americans, life in rural areas of the United States presents a unique set of challenges for the chronic pain community. In order to properly address the needs of these patients, we must first acknowledge the disparities they face.

In 2016, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Health Interview Survey found that 24 percent of rural adults suffer from chronic pain. A startling statistic, and one that demonstrates just how vital access to care is in these communities. Unfortunately, access to care is one of the most challenging problems in rural America.

Data from the National Rural Health Association found that for every 100,000 rural dwellers, there are only 39.8 primary care physicians. This number gets even lower when we look at specialty care physicians, for which there are only 30 per 100,000 rural dwellers. To put it another way, while 20 percent of Americans are currently living in rural areas, only 12 percent of physicians and only 8 percent of specialists practice in these areas.

Thus, Americans suffering from chronic pain in rural areas usually have to travel longer distances than those in urban areas to receive care. Additionally, many rural medical facilities have been shut down in recent years, making the journey to receive proper care even more difficult. And while telehealth is a growing industry that is becoming a more viable option for patients who do not require in-person treatment, many rural patients are left without this option due to limitations to broadband access which restricts their access to online treatment plans.

As we consider these unique challenges pain patients in rural America face compared to the rest of the country, we must also remember that rural America has been tragically affected by the opioid crisis. It is critically important that we continue to find effective ways to treat the epidemic, and that includes the need for new therapies and the development of non-opioid treatment options to help treat and manage pain.

The high percentage of adults suffering from chronic pain in rural America, paired with the extreme shortage of health care clinicians – and the even greater shortage of specialists who deal with pain and addiction – creates a catalyst for prolonged and unnecessary suffering. If we do not address this issue head on, rural Americans will continue to experience issues of pain and addiction that will be left untreated.

It’s urgent that we properly address the issue of chronic pain in the United States. This Pain Awareness Month, I encourage you to join us as advocates for the pain community, and to recognize the differences and disparities of treatment options in the United States. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to chronic pain and we must work together with our government to find new and effective ways to treat and manage pain symptoms.

Betsy Huber is president of the National Grange, America’s oldest agricultural, rural life and small town citizen advocacy organization.

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