Navigating chronic pain in the Great White North

It is my pleasure to introduce Anna Eidt. Anna is a chronic migraineur from Canada. We’ve swapped posts for today. Here Anna shares what it’s like to live with chronic pain using the Canadian healthcare system.  To see my post about the U.S. healthcare system, please visit Anna’s blog at



Despite the many challenges of living with chronic migraine, I have a lot to be thankful for. One of those things is access to a national, publicly funded healthcare program.

In 1947, Tommy Douglas launched the first provincial, publicly funded health insurance program in Canada, and since then — against the loud voices of many opposing doctors and private insurance companies — it has grown into a national health insurance program providing basic hospital and physician services through taxation.

There is no shortage of criticism targeting the evils of socialism, and I am no political expert, but I do know that if I did not have access to Canadian Medicare or something like it, at this point in my life I would be some combination of the following:

  • Bankrupt
  • Severely disabled
  • Entirely dependent on my parents/partner
  • Dead (okay, probably not dead, but dependent and debt-ridden for certain.)

Considering my frequent doctor’s visits, emergency room parties, appendix removal, and visit to specialists, I think it’s safe to say I’d have financial burdens beyond my already weighty student loan if it weren’t for Medicare. Thanks to our nationally funded, provincially administered health care system, as well as my citizenship and location in a major city, I have had consistent access to a family doctor, a headache education program, emergency care, and specialists including several neurologists and gastroenterologists.

But Canadian Medicare is far from perfect.

Used with permission courtesy of Mike Constable
Used with permission courtesy of Mike Constable

According to Griffiths Rudyard of the Globe and Mail,

 “A 2009 study found that the average wait to see a specialist in the United States is 20.5 days. Long waits are … more likely in Canada, with 27 per cent of patients waiting more than four months for elective surgery, compared to just 5 per cent in the United States.”

With the average wait time for non-emergency surgery at about 18 weeks, serious barriers to basic care for many new immigrants, people living rurally, and additional fees that are not always affordable especially for those dealing with chronic conditions, our system could certainly use some tweaking.

Many argue that wait times would be solved by a two-tiered system mimicking European models. Others argue that the problem lies in poor organization and inefficient red tape, but all things considered, I’m in favor of needs-based care, rather this potential nightmare:

Plus, per capita health spending in Canada is half of that in the U.S., and it seems that Canadians are generally more satisfied than Americans with their overall service.

What’s missing

These complex and controversial political arguments aside, as a chronic pain patient, there is ONE MAJOR FLAW THAT I JUST CANNOT GET PAST (yes, that’s me yelling), and that is the lack of affordable access to so-called “alternative” treatments.

As a society, we are heavily invested in Western Medicine. Despite numerous accountable and respected clinical studies showing the efficacy of “alternative” treatments such as acupuncture and massage, these services continue to be paid out-of-pocket, or partially paid for by private insurance for those who are lucky enough to have access. I know I am incredibly privileged to have private health insurance partially provided by my employer, but still, that insurance package only covers Western medicine. The treatments that have been the most effective in treating my condition: acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, natural supplements, meditation training, and physical therapy are not covered. These treatments, though effective, are costly, and I’ve had to sell my car and seriously rejig my finances to continue to receive the care I need to remain at least partially functional in the world, and that’s all with a high-paying union-protected job.

(I should mention that Canadians are eligible for a 15 percent payback of medical costs come tax season for most of the aforementioned treatments, but for people who can’t afford them in the first place, this isn’t too helpful.)

As respected headache advocate Teri Robert points out in her article on Health Central “…the best disease management occurs when whatever treatments work for us — [‘natural’ treatments, complementary therapies, prescription medications and devices] — are used in a management regimen that we and our doctors devise.”

But how can our doctors help us to devise this multi-faceted treatment plan when many of us cannot afford to even consider “alternative” treatments?

This ignorance of the need for well-rounded, multi-approach treatment plans is certainly not a problem specific to Canada, and my hope is that Western medical institutions across North America will see the light at the urging of patients like us, and become leaders in combining forces with non-Western medicine, refusing to bill such practices as “complimentary” or “alternative” but call them what they are: effective, necessary, tried and true avenues to wellness (a.k.a. healthcare).  Only then will these practices gain more credibility in the eyes of the public, policy makers, government, and private insurance companies.

While grateful for the socialist ways of Tommy Douglas and his many hard-working successors, we have a long way to go to not only protect but also improve public Canadian health care in the 21st century. We need physicians who are willing and able to work in teams to create one stop (Medicare-covered) shops across the country for chronic pain patients to improve service, decrease wait times, and prevent chronic diseases from becoming more serious.

With such an amazing diversity of healers in our midst, Canadians would be foolish to stick to our colonialist West-knows-best ways, and smart to take advantage of the many kinds of healthcare that we already know can benefit our large and typically underserved demographic of chronic pain patients.

annaAnna Eidt is a secondary school teacher who has been living with chronic migraine since 2012. She writes about her experiences at


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