'The biggest worry..': research findings on pain management for Aboriginal peoples in Northern Territory, Australia

Rural Remote Health. 2006 Jul-Sep;6(3):549. Epub 2006 Jul 10.


Introduction: Effective pain management is considered essential during end-of-life care, and is core work for the discipline of hospice and palliative care. However, although there is extensive literature on pain relief during end-of-life care for Caucasians, there are few articles that focus specifically on issues associated with pain management for Australian Aboriginal peoples. In order to address this dearth, the present article provides findings from a National Health and Medical Research Council two-year study on Aboriginal palliative care, conducted in the Northern Territory, that explored and documented issues associated with pain management for rural and remote Aboriginal peoples.

Methods: The data were collected through open-ended, qualitative interviews conducted with a cross-section of participants (consumers and health professionals) throughout the Northern Territory, Australia. There were a total of seventy-two interviews completed with a wide range of participants including patients (n = 10), carers (n = 19), Aboriginal health care workers (n = 11), healthcare professionals (n = 30) and interpreters (n = 2). The interviews were transcribed verbatim, coded and thematically analysed within a descriptive phenomenological framework.

Findings: To understand the problems of pain management it is important to appreciate many of the cultural practices and beliefs of Aboriginal peoples. A complexity of cultural relationship rules determine who should and should not be directly involved in providing physical care. Findings from the study show that Aboriginal peoples may have a higher threshold of pain and are less likely to complain - this is particularly so for men, who do not want to appear weak by expressing their pain. Key factors impacting on pain management are cultural concerns about 'blame' and 'pay back'. There is also a fear of Western medicine, stemming from a lack of understanding of clinical notions of pain relief, fear of the administration, side effects and ramifications of medications, and fear that Western pain medications will speed up the dying process and inhibit the passing on of traditional knowledge and secrets that occurs during end-of-life. Strategies posited for ensuring effective pain management include developing trust, timely involvement of the doctor for administering pain medication, provision of emotional support, information giving to decrease fear, provision of the 'right' information to the 'right' person and strengthening of health service provision.

Conclusions: The insights provided by a diversity of Aboriginal peoples and the health professionals who care for them provide valuable wisdom with respect to the best way to ensure effective pain management is made available to Australia's first peoples. At the core of this information is the need for cultural sensitivity and respect.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cultural Diversity*
  • Fear / psychology
  • Humans
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander*
  • Northern Territory
  • Pain / drug therapy
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Palliative Care / psychology*
  • Rural Health Services / statistics & numerical data