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Pain community flexes muscles in Brussels

Pamela Bell of Pain Concern and Neil Betteridge of the Chronic Pain Policy Coalition outside the EU Parliament

On Thursday 23 June millions of Britons go to the polls to decide whether to leave or remain in the European Union. Of course that’s not an issue Pain Concern should or will take sides on and whatever the outcome we’ll continue to keep in touch with patient groups and healthcare professionals from across the continent and beyond.

Back in May I attended the Societal Impact of Pain (SIP) symposium in Brussels as a representative of Pain Concern. It’s an annual event that brings together the European pain community, so that we can speak with one voice in making pain an issue that European decision makers cannot ignore. This year’s SIP event went under the heading ‘Time for action’ – but what kind of action and will your average European living with pain see any difference?

On the agenda

At the European level – just as it is in the UK – a major priority is to push pain up the agenda. The presence at the event of several Members of the European Parliament (MEP) with a passionate commitment to improving the lives of people in pain shows there has already been success at reaching out to politicians.

MEPs from Spain to Romania came to show their support of the struggle to reduce the devastating impact of pain on individuals and society. Ireland’s Marian Harkin spoke especially movingly of the stigma and accusations of malingering faced by people in pain, while Finland’s Sirpa Pietikäinen stressed the debilitating psychological impact of pain and the problem of social marginalisation.

Chris Wells, President of the European Pain Federation (EFIC) and a pain specialist at the Walton Centre in Liverpool was enthusiastic about the success of SIP 2016: ‘it’s by far the best SIP we’ve had because we’ve got much more patient involvement and MEP involvement’.

Pain at work

For Theresa Griffin MEP for the North West of England a particular priority area should be improving access to employment. Speaking to Pain Concern, Griffin emphasised the importance of holistic support to help the 44 million people in Europe living in pain ‘to play a full part in society’.

The SIP recommendations call for the EU and its members to recognise that managing pain effectively can prevent people from losing their jobs and to make it easier for people to stay in or return to work.  They also demand that laws requiring employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for employees with chronic pain are enforced across the EU.

Future research

The EU cannot force member states to change their healthcare policies, so some of the recommendations coming out of SIP 2016 will not benefit patients without the cooperation of our national governments. However, the EU does have the power to fund research, so the hope is that we can make chronic pain a research priority for the future.

Fernando Cervero, Past President of the International Association for the Study of Pain, called for research focusing on how acute pain becomes chronic. Prevention of chronic pain and the resulting suffering and burdens on individuals and society should be seen as a sound investment rather than an unaffordable expense, said Theresa Griffin. To make the case to politicians across Europe research is needed to put a figure on the financial cost of pain and the savings we could make by improving access to pain management.

Patients united

While healthcare systems and levels of care differ across Europe, patient advocacy groups and healthcare professionals were united in supporting SIP 2016’s eight recommendations. Joop van Griensven, President of Pain Alliance Europe (PAE) – an organisation uniting Europe’s pain charities – spoke of the importance of raising awareness: ‘pain is not taken seriously by people in the street, most healthcare professionals or policy makers’. The Red Balloon Project, launched in Brussels, aims to give visibility to the hidden epidemic of chronic pain through a social media campaign. Below you can see my efforts in the photo booth. To find out how to take part, visit

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