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1 in 5 Americans Face Chronic Pain

1 in 5 Americans Face Chronic Pain

A new analysis suggests nearly one in five U.S. adults are in pain most every day for spells of three months or longer.

Researchers estimate the 39 million adults in persistent pain outnumber the residents of our most populous state, California.

According to previous studies, the costs of pain amount to hundreds of billions of dollars a year in lost productivity and health care.

Importantly, the detrimental impact in monetary terms may be dwarfed by the psychological burden associated with chronic pain.

“A sizeable portion of American adults are dealing with persistent pain and that’s affecting their lives profoundly,” said Jae Kennedy, Ph.D., professor of health policy and administration at Washington State University Spokane.

“Access to good pain management for this population is limited, and there’s a real risk that taking short-term pain medications for a long period of time will lead to dependency or addiction.”

The study, published in the Journal of Pain, analyzed findings from the first national survey to measure persistent pain defined as daily or nearly daily pain lasting three months. The National Center for Health Statistics survey questioned 35,000 households.

Kennedy was inspired to look at the data after seeing the 2011 national Institute of Medicine report, which found nearly half of Americans suffer what it called chronic pain.

The current report’s chronic pain definition is more inclusive and can include arthritis, joint pain, moderate or severe pain in the past four weeks, and any work or housework disability.

“I don’t think that half of the population is dealing with chronic pain in the sense that we would describe chronic pain as a risk factor for deteriorating mental health and substance abuse,” said Kennedy.

“So we wanted to come up with a subset of chronic pain that focused on something that we could look at across different chronic conditions rather than saying, ‘OK, if you’ve got arthritis, then you’ve got chronic pain.'”

“By focusing on persistent pain,” he said, “health policy makers and providers can get a clearer sense of pain’s economic and social costs.”

“Persistent pain is going to have the biggest impact on people’s daily lives,” he said. “If you’re dealing with pain constantly for a long period of time, that’s going to affect your work life, your family life, your social life. It also puts you at higher risk for things like mental illness and addiction.”

Researchers discovered pain extends across demographic and ethnic boundaries although some clustering does persist.

Naturally, older adults are more likely to report persistent pain, particularly between the ages of 60 and 69. Women are at a higher risk than men, as are those without high school degrees. Latino and African-American adults are less likely to report pain than whites.

Two-thirds of those with persistent pain said it is “constantly present.” Half said it is sometimes “unbearable and excruciating.”

People with persistent pain were also more likely to report daily feelings of anxiety, depression, and fatigue. This makes sense, said Kennedy.

“Being in pain is depressing,” he said. “Being in pain all the time is tiring. Being in pain all the time is anxiety-provoking. So it’s plausible that pain is triggering other kinds of more psychological distress.”

Kennedy believes questions regarding persistent pain should be included in future national health surveys. He believes this will allow a more consistent measure of pain and the associated burden it places across different groups of people.

And while pain is in some ways inherent in the human condition, he would like to see policies and practices that ease it.

“The rate of pain could be lowered,” he said, “with responsive health systems that look at the entire person and the range of therapeutic services that they may need.

“It may be more expensive in the short term but in the long term — if we can get those people back to work, paying taxes, supporting their families, engaged in the community — there will be all kinds of economic as well as social benefits.”

Source: Washington State University

Man in pain photo by shutterstock.

1 in 5 Americans Face Chronic Pain

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). 1 in 5 Americans Face Chronic Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Oct 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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