Norway’s National Guidelines for Evaluating Pain
I don’t envy the job of health economists – nor policy-makers or politicians who need to make the difficult decisions about who should receive allocation within the restricted health funding that is available.  At the same time, I’m often worried when I hear that ‘high-tech’ treatments, and those that are perceived as ‘glamour’ health problems get funding when low-status problems like chronic pain get overlooked.  So it was nice to read that Norway has enshrined the rights of people to receive evaluation and treatment for chronic pain within law.

The National Guidelines for chronic pain ‘seek to answer the difficult questions of which patients should be prioritised at pain clinics and what is a medically acceptable waiting time.’ It has been developed by ‘a task force established by the Directorate of Health, comprising pain specialists, primary care and patient representatives’ and has ‘identified 5 categories of complex pain disorders that as a main rule should be given the right to prioritised health care in pain clinics.’

The five categories are:
Category 1: Sub-acute (≤6 months) pain conditions with reason to fear chronification. Maximum waiting time 2 weeks, e.g., progressing complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) 5 months after an ankle-fracture.
Category 2: Chronic complex pain condition, with or without known initiating cause, combined with substance abuse and/or psychiatric illness. These patients need concomitant follow-up by psychiatric
and/or addiction medicine department(s) and a multidisciplinary pain clinic approach. Maximum waiting time 16 weeks, e.g., CRPS of an arm combined with depression and addiction to heroin.
Category 3: Chronic complex pain condition WITH known initiating cause (that can no longer be treated with a curative approach). Maximum waiting time 16 weeks, e.g., Post-herpetic neuralgia.
Category 4: Chronic complex pain condition WITHOUT known initiating cause. Maximum waiting time 16 weeks, e.g., chronic muscle pain syndrome.
Category 5: Severe and difficult to treat pain condition in patients suffering from a known serious and advanced illness. Maximum waiting time 2 weeks, e.g., advanced cancer, COLD, heart failure, end stage
multiple sclerosis.

Several aspects of these guidelines strike me, and I’ll briefly outline them below.
The first is, that it’s great to see sub-acute pain problems prioritised for access ‘if there is reason to fear chronification’. While I chuckled a little at the term ‘chronification’, the concept of prioritising ‘at risk’ people is both not new, and strongly endorsed by many. What might be difficult to ascertain is who falls into this category and how they might be identified. We do know that the majority of risk factors are not biomedical, but are instead psychosocial – and this suggests that someone (probably the GP) would have to identify these psychosocial factors. A recent study I read suggested that while GP’s do identify psychosocial factors readily, the content of their conversations with these people is more biomedical than for those who don’t have these features in their presentation. Somehow I think GP’s and other primary providers need support to feel confident in how to identify and more importantly, manage people who are at high risk for chronic disability.

Next point is that category two includes patients who are often not prioritised – those with pre-existing psychiatric or addiction problems. In fact, often these patients bounce from service to service with none of the services wanting to take them on – these guidelines recommend a combined approach of both multidisciplinary pain management and concurrent psychiatric and addiction services help.

I mused on the distinction between people with pain with a presumed cause, and those without a presumed cause. While both were prioritised to be seen within 16 weeks of referral, I wasn’t sure why the two were separated – except maybe to suggest that biomedical management needs to be completed prior to referral for pain management. I’m not sure I totally agree with this because it’s well known that psychosocial factors influence chronic disability, but then again, it’s equally important that people are ready to acknowledge and accept that their pain is ongoing so that they can stop the search for a cure.

My final pondering is over the use of medical diagnoses with only limited reference to psychological and even less attention paid to social factors as a reason for prioritising people. After all, it’s not the diagnosis that causes people to go to a doctor – it’s that they can’t sleep, feel horrid, are really worried and may be about to lose their job, their family life and their relationships! I’d like to see priorities based much more upon these factors and the distress associated with this than on a diagnostic label.

I strongly endorse this section that underpins the rationale for seeing people at a specialist chronic pain management centre:

The cost of the specialised treatment offered has to be “reasonable” considering the expected outcome of the health care
provided. Chronic pain patients are avid users of health care services.
Patients with complex chronic pain conditions can be helped through a limited number of consultations at a multidisciplinary pain clinic. Health care costs can also be reduced considerably by avoiding further futile investigations and attempts at treatment (in other sectors of the health care system).

People with chronic pain use health services much more when they’re distressed, anxious, feel dismissed and misunderstood – and when they feel helpless and demoralised because they don’t know what to do with themselves. Something pain management centres do when they work well (perhaps following those ‘back to basics’ that I posted about yesterday), is reduce distress, increase function and help people feel more at ease with themselves despite experiencing ongoing pain.

Hara, K., & Borchgrevink, P. (2010). National guidelines for evaluating pain—Patients’ legal right to prioritised health care at multidisciplinary pain clinics in Norway implemented 2009 Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 1 (1), 60-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.sjpain.2009.10.002


  1. I personally try to avoid pain relievers as much as I can so I have tried to figure out others ways to deal with the minor stuff. Just Friday I pulled my back out and I really know I need to do more core body exercises but I was thankful I had my heating pad and my Topricin pain cream since it is natural and helps with inflammation.

    1. There is good evidence that acute pain such as an acute low back pain (not sure where your back goes when it ‘goes out’) responds well to short-term use of pain relief such as paracetamol. This, along with appropriate short-term adjustment of daily activities and graded resumption of normal activities, has the best evidence for returning to normal function as quickly as possible.
      Natural remedies, especially if they have active herbs, can be just as harmful as so-called unnatural remedies or pharmaceuticals. Remember, a herb still has chemicals in it! And what’s more, if it’s in an unregulated part of the industry it’s likely to have no regulation in terms of concentration, purity or effectiveness. And it’s probably prepared by a huge pharmaceutical company who are making good profits off it because of the ‘natural’ labelling.
      Be as wary of ‘natural’ remedies as you are of any other ‘treatment’ – they all need to undergo the same level of testing as we’d expect ANYTHING that purports to treat health.

  2. While this is certainly way off off-topic for my own blog, as a Research Blogger from Norway I could not not read this post.

    While legalizing patients’ rights is a good thing, sadly enough, these maximum waiting times are rarely upheld in the chronically understaffed and chronically underbudgeted Norwegian public health system. So, yes, there is a legal requirement on on side, but there are no means or resources to actually comply with the letter of the law.

    Fortunately I’ve never been in a painful enough situation (pun intended) where I have had to make use of my rights.

    1. Hi Jan
      I can certainly understand your frustration in needing to use legal means to obtain treatment that your Government has promised. It’s not uncommon to find an ideal held up while reality is somewhat less! In New Zealand we have the ideal that healthcare is available for everyone, and that it shouldn’t be a ‘means-tested’ right, yet if you have chronic pain and happen to be referred to the Centre in which I work, and it happens to be in the wrong time of year, you may be turned away back to GP care because the waiting list is such that you’ll have to wait longer than six months. And we proudly say that we have a six month waiting list! It’s an artifact of being able to decline referrals and there is no means to seek treatment through the legal system.
      Chronic pain seems to be a poor sister to the flashier health problems like heart disease or cancer – yet it affects more people and while it’s not a death sentence, many people call it a life sentence instead, and with hard labour.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment, it’s always interesting to hear different opinions!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.