If you don’t already suffer from chronic pain, there's a high likelihood that some day you will or, at the very least, that you'll learn about it through the experience of a close friend or family member.

Dr. Pat Morley-Forster, the medical director of the pain management program at St. Joseph's Health Care in London, Ont., says that, overall, about one in five Canadians suffer from some kind of chronic pain.

"Whether it be chronic headache, chronic back pain, or pain after a surgical procedure," she explained. 

Morley-Forster says chronic pain is loosely defined as pain that lasts longer than three months — the usual time needed for injuries or wounds to heal.

It is a problem that can be caused by a combination of physical, psychological, social and occupational factors, and it can be disabling. And, looking at incidences of chronic pain occurring in different age groups, it appears the problem only concentrates with time.

"The number goes up with the aging population, so it could go up to one in three or one in four, for a population that's 65 and over," Morley-Forster said.

Women more likely to report pain

Chronic pain has been a major problem for many seniors for years, dramatically impacting their quality of life.

According to data gathered by Statistics Canada data in two surveys in 1996/1997 and 2005, roughly 27 per cent of seniors living at home and up to 38 per cent of those living in health-care institutions have chronic pain, and reporting rates were higher for women than for men.

The 1996/1997 National Population Health Survey found that chronic pain interfered with the activities seniors could perform, with 64 per cent of those experiencing chronic pain while living in institutions reporting that it interfered with most of their activities. In households, 54 per cent of those living with chronic pain reported that it interfered with most of the activities they did.

Ada Glustein

Ada Glutstein has been living with chronic pain for over 10 years. She leads a support group in Vancouver to help others who are also struggling with the problem. (Elaine Chau )

One such sufferer is Ada Glutstein, a 71 year old who has lived with chronic pain for over 10 years.

'Everything became very difficult, and I had to start thinking about how I was going to position my body to do different things.' - Ada Glutstein, chronic pain sufferer

She used to be a teacher in Vancouver, but had to retire early because her condition made everyday tasks extremely difficult.

"I just found I couldn't walk very well," she said. "[I] couldn't put the dishes in the dishwasher, or bend over to take them out."

"Everything became very difficult, and I had to start thinking about how I was going to position my body to do different things," she explained. "I [once] was the kind of person who ran up and down stairs, and did everything quickly. I became somebody who walked with a cane."

Morley-Forster says Canadian doctors have difficulty treating patients with chronic pain because of a lack of national standards and because doctors tend to look at chronic pain as a secondary problem.

The situation is changing though, because more and more experts and institutions are beginning to define chronic pain as a disease.