Chronic pain is a prevalent and costly problem. This review addresses the question of the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the most common treatments for patients with chronic pain.
Representative published studies that evaluate the clinical effectiveness of pharmacological treatments, conservative (standard) care, surgery, spinal cord stimulators, implantable drug delivery systems (IDDSs), and pain rehabilitation programs (PRPs) are examined and compared. The cost-effectiveness of these treatment approaches is also considered.
Outcome criteria including pain reduction, medication use, health care consumption, functional activities, and closure of disability compensation cases are examined. In addition to clinical effectiveness, the cost-effectiveness of PRPs, conservative care, surgery, spinal cord stimulators, and IDDSs are compared using costs to return a treated patient to work to illustrate the relative expenses for each of these treatments.
There are limitations to the success of all the available treatments. The author urges caution in interpreting the results, particularly in comparisons between treatments and across studies, because there are broad differences in the pain syndromes and inclusion criteria used, the drug dosages, comparability of treatments, the definition of “chronic” used, the outcome criteria selected to determine success, and societal differences. None of the currently available treatments eliminates pain for the majority of patients. Pain rehabilitation programs provide comparable reduction in pain to alternative pain treatment modalities, but with significantly better outcomes for medication use, health care utilization, functional activities, return to work, closure of disability claims, and with substantially fewer iatrogenic consequences and adverse events. Surgery, spinal cord stimulators, and IDDSs appear to have substantial benefits on some outcome criteria for carefully selected patients. These modalities are, however, expensive. Pain rehabilitation programs are significantly more cost effective than implantation of spinal cord stimulators, IDDSs, conservative care, and surgery, even for selected patients. Research is needed to identify which patients are most likely to benefit from the available treatments and to study combinations of the available treatments since none of them appear capable of eliminating pain or significantly improving functional outcomes for all treated.