Health: Are North Americans wimps when it comes to pain?

How do people in other countries handle pain following various surgical procedures? It’s a pertinent question today in view of the debate on opioid usage in North America. A recent report in JAMA Network Open, published by the American Medical Association, confirms what I have argued, that North Americans have become wimps when confronted with pain. So who is responsible for this?

I first became aware of what was happening to pain control many years ago. I had an impacted wisdom tooth which my dentist said must be removed. So I called a dental surgeon in Toronto, whom I had known for years, and made an appointment for this procedure.

Following the tooth’s removal, he said, “Be sure to take this painkiller every six hours as there will be significant pain.” But since I have never taken painkillers without good reason, I ignored his advice.

The following morning the dental surgeon called and asked my wife how I was feeling. He was surprised to hear I was at the hospital performing surgery. I had some pain, but not enough to take a painkiller.

This study looked at the percentage of patients in Canada, the United States, and Sweden, who took an opioid prescription for seven days after laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery to remove the appendix, gallbladder, meniscus of the knee, or breast lump.

The results were shocking. It showed that 79% of Canadians and 76% of Americans used opioid prescription drugs following these procedures. But only 11% of patients in Sweden needed an opioid drug! You do not need to be a statistician to surmise that something has gone awry in North America.

But there is more to this problem that opioid drugs. A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that 16.7% of Americans filled one or more prescriptions for psychiatric drugs, most of which were meant to treat depression. Even more worrying, they were taking them to treat long-term depression. Again, you need neither be a statistician nor a sociologist to detect a societal problem.

This mania for pills of many kinds has not happened overnight. There’s little doubt that my dentist friend and many doctors are over over-prescribing opioid drugs and other pain medication.

But you cannot lay the all blame on the medical profession. For some years, patients have begun to believe that in our modern society, there should be complete freedom from even minor pain. This fact has been driven into their psyche, night after night, by big pharma TV ads. Millions of dollars are spent on over-dramatized, almost laughable TV ads, that show how easy it is to be totally rid of the least pain.

Today, there are also fewer requirements to consult a doctor to obtain a prescription for a variety of painkillers. Just walk into any pharmacy to see the displays of over-the-counter drugs available to cure various aches and pains.

Unfortunately, we have become victims of “pillitis”. Besides, it’s not just the problem of pain. Each year tens of millions of dollars are spent to treat heartburn and other mild medical conditions, ones that could be prevented by reasonable adjustments to lifestyle.

This study will not get the headlines it deserves. So I must repeat, when TV ads present misleading messages about health, we must all become educated patients and seek the advice of the family doctor before taking over-the-counter medication. And if the doctor offers a prescription, be sure to question the purpose of it. Learn about your options and turn down unnecessary pills.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones can be reached at

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