Chronic Pain More Common Than Many Top U.S. Ailments

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May 17, 2023 – A person’s risk of developing chronic pain is higher than the risk of developing some of the most common diseases in the U.S. such as diabetes, depression, or high blood pressure, a new study shows. 

Within a 1-year period, 6 in 100 previously pain-free adults reported developing chronic pain, and 1 in 100 developed pain so severe it substantially restricted their lives, according to the research published this week in the journal JAMA Network Open. By comparison, 7 in 1,000 people are newly diagnosed with diabetes each year in the U.S., 16 in 1,000 people are newly diagnosed with depression, and 45 per 1,000 are newly diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Chronic pain was defined as pain most days or every day lasting for at least 3 months. More severe pain, called high-impact chronic pain, was defined as pain resulting in substantial restrictions in life activities, including work, social, and self-care.

The researchers analyzed data for more than 10,000 U.S. adults who didn’t live in institutions. Among participants, 52% were women, 73% were white, and the median age was 49 years old. They were asked the same two questions in 2019, and again in 2020: “In the past 3 months, how often did you have pain?” and “Over the past 3 months, how often did pain limit your life or work activities?”

At the start of the study, 40% reported no pain, 39% reported non-chronic pain, and 21% reported chronic pain. More than half of the people in each pain-level group maintained the same pain level 1 year later. 

Among those with non-chronic pain at the start of the study, 15% said their pain had progressed to chronic pain a year later, while 10% had fully recovered. Among people with chronic pain at the outset, 10% had fully recovered a year later.

The risk of experiencing chronic pain after age 50 increases by 29%, the researchers found. There was no gender difference in the risk of experiencing chronic pain. The researchers said they conducted the study because there is not a lot of data available to evaluate how common chronic pain is in the U.S.

“This comparison emphasizes the high disease burden of chronic pain in the U.S. adult population and the need for both prevention and early management of pain before it can become chronic, especially for groups at higher risk,” they concluded.