Northern Ireland

Chronic pain affects 400,000 people in NI

A woman holding her hands Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Chronic pain affects hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland

Chronic pain affects almost one in four people across Northern Ireland.

Health and Social Care Board figures show that an estimated 400,000 people suffer from persistent pain.

Pain clinics and pain support groups are helping people to live with their conditions.

They give them ways to cope with the effects and distress caused. They also show sufferers how to exercise safely and build up their activity.

Andersonstown woman Moya Connolly has cardiac problems and needs both knees replaced. She described what it is like to live in persistent pain.

"It's intense, it's constant and it's there 24/7," she said.

"I take nine different tablets in the morning, two at night - it makes you feel very down at times."

Pain support

Moya attends a pain support group run by the Healthy Living Centre Alliance at the Maureen Sheehan Centre in west Belfast.

Image caption Moya Connolly and Toni Currie attend a pain clinic in west Belfast

She said there were initial hurdles for her to overcome.

"My first thought was that it was going to take the pain away. Then I realised it's not going to go away but I can manage it much better," she said.

Toni Currie also lives with constant pain caused by arthritis, which was causing her to become quite isolated.

She travels from north Belfast after asking her GP to recommend a group.

"Pain makes you feel useless and I spent a lot of time in bed before I came here because I was depressed," she said.

"At first I thought it's a waste of time, another 'talking therapy', but as time went on I realised the merits of it.

"You are given different ways of thinking about your pain and it isn't the focus of your life."

Image caption Kevin Kennedy aims to change people's mindsets about their chronic pain

Kevin Kennedy is a health education officer and runs the group.

"It's about changing mindsets - yes, pain is there but it's about accepting it, dealing with it and making your life work, even though you are in pain," he said.

"The biggest challenge for us is getting people through the door but once we get them here it's difficult for us to lose them."

Finding alternative ways of coping with pain is certainly something that Northern Ireland needs.

Battle with pain

"Research indicates that painful conditions cost western nations between three to 10% of GDP - if we apply this to Northern Ireland we are talking roughly about £400m," said public health consultant Dr Christina McMaster.

"It's the second largest threat to population health at the moment, together with mental health."

Dr McMaster, who works for the Health and Social Care Board and the Public Health Agency, which funds a variety of the courses, said the growing use of medication is also a concern.

Image caption Patients are shown how to exercise carefully and build up their activity

"In Northern Ireland the expenditure on these medications has doubled in the past decade.

"Unless we find ways of offering patients and practitioners alternatives to prescribing medication then this issue will continue to escalate."

Toni described what she learned at the course as "another tool in my arsenal" in her battle with pain.

"It has definitely helped to bring me back to who I am because I wasn't me at all.

"I would say give it a go and if it hasn't changed your life I would be really surprised."

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