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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Chronic pain among homeless persons: characteristics, treatment, and barriers to management

Stephen W Hwang12*, Emma Wilkins1, Catharine Chambers1, Eileen Estrabillo1, Jon Berends1 and Anna MacDonald1

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Research on Inner City Health, The Keenan Research Centre in the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto, Canada

2 Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Toronto, Canada

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BMC Family Practice 2011, 12:73  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-12-73

Published: 8 July 2011

Abstract

Background

Little information is available on the problem of chronic pain among homeless individuals. This study aimed to describe the characteristics of and treatments for chronic pain, barriers to pain management, concurrent medical conditions, and substance use among a representative sample of homeless single adult shelter users who experience chronic pain in Toronto, Canada.

Methods

Participants were randomly selected at shelters for single homeless adults between September 2007 and February 2008 and screened for chronic pain, defined as having pain in the body for ≥ 3 months or receiving treatment for pain that started ≥ 3 months ago. Cross-sectional surveys obtained information on demographic characteristics, characteristics of and treatments for chronic pain, barriers to pain management, concurrent medical conditions, and substance use. Whenever possible, participants' physicians were also interviewed.

Results

Among 152 homeless participants who experienced chronic pain, 11 (8%) were classified as Chronic Pain Grade I (low disability-low intensity), 47 (32%) as Grade II (low disability-high intensity), 34 (23%) as Grade III (high disability-moderately limiting), and 54 (37%) as Grade IV (high disability-severely limiting). The most common self-reported barriers to pain management were stress of shelter life, inability to afford prescription medications, and poor sleeping conditions. Participants reported using over-the-counter medications (48%), street drugs (46%), prescribed medications (43%), and alcohol (29%) to treat their pain. Of the 61 interviewed physicians, only 51% reported treating the patient's pain. The most common physician-reported difficulties with pain management were reluctance to prescribe narcotics due to the patient's history of substance abuse, psychiatric comorbidities, frequently missed appointments, and difficulty getting the patient to take medications correctly.

Conclusions

Clinicians who provide healthcare for homeless people should screen for chronic pain and discuss barriers to effective pain management with their patients.