Over half of homeless people suffer from chronic pain

Monday, 10 September 2018 - 3:16pm

Groundswell’s new peer-research reveals that chronic pain is having a significant impact on the lives of homeless people. It’s time to acknowledge this hidden issue and find ways to better support people affected by physical pain.

Homeless man holding out his hands

At the end of the day, especially at the end of the day, pain is horrible. It’s horrible because it hurts. An intrinsic part of being homeless is the pain/injury/stress/pain cycle that batters the body and the mind with unfair wear and tear. You often end the day bedding down on anything from a cold pavement to a cheap polyurethane mattress complete with vengeful springs seemingly designed to make you as uncomfortable as humanly possible.

I was a researcher on Groundswell’s new peer research project exploring the impact of homelessness on physical health with a focus on chronic pain. We went into the research with our own experiences guiding the questions we asked and after interviewing almost 300 people, we found the extent of the problem was shocking. A quarter of people experiencing homelessness have been suffering from chronic pain for over 10 years.

The relationship between chronic pain and homelessness is a hugely complex issue. Physical pain is damaging to mental health and mental health issues limit people’s ability to manage chronic pain. Throw in drug and alcohol misuse – self-medication, lack of access to health care and the daily stresses placed on the body from homelessness and it’s hard to think how we might tackle the issue. But we need to. Chronic pain severely impacts not only on quality of life but also the ability to move on to housing and paid employment, damages relationships, not to mention complicating a whole host of other health concerns.

More pain aware

Pain is an issue that we just don’t talk about. Conducting the survey was incredibly emotional as the questions forced participants to confront an issue that is often ignored or hidden. There is always humour, even when it comes to the darkest of subjects. We asked participants where they were currently feeling physical pain. We ran through a list of body parts; legs, arms, hands and so on. One participant thought about the question for a moment then answered ‘my soul’ and laughed loudly.

In homelessness services, we need to be more ‘pain aware’. The first step is to begin to engage people using services with the topic – if you ask your clients if they have any aches or pains I think you will be surprised by how many people say yes. To help with this process we have created a guide to encourage people to think and talk about their physical pain.

The next step is to start encouraging people to see this as a medical issue and let them know it can be managed. Then we need to direct people to their GP to see what their options might be. We also need to be conscious that poor diet, lack of sleep and the boredom that you can face in homelessness services are all issues that aggravate chronic pain.

The findings are an authentic snapshot of the levels of pain, chronic and otherwise, endured on a daily basis by those who are without a home. The homeless community is made up of people with lives; lives that are made up of stories and not the numbers they are too often reduced to. Don’t get me wrong, data is important and the stats provide the bricks for this report but the report is littered with quotes and first-hand descriptions that really breathe life into it.

I urge you to read the report. I also hope that if you work in a homeless service you can start to think and talk about pain with your clients. 

About the Out of Pain study:

Out of Pain is a research study into the extent, cause and impact of physical pain on people experiencing homelessness, which was conducted by Groundswell and led by peer researchers. The project is funded by Trust for London.

You can read the report and click on the following link to download the Out of Pain guide

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Mat Amp

Research and journalism project worker at Groundswell

Mat is the research and journalism project worker at Groundswell and is the deputy editor of the pavement magazine.