September is Pain Awareness Month. Although chronic pain is a common medical concern, it is often poorly understood and misrepresented through the public lens. This month is an empowering time to promote education, help dispel myths, or discuss your personal pain story. In honor of the occasion, we’ve compiled a list of enlightening facts about chronic pain.
Chronic pain is different from everyday aches and pains. Pain that comes on suddenly and lasts anywhere from a few minutes to several weeks is known as acute pain. Acute pain typically has an identifiable cause, such as inflammation, injury, or surgery. On the other hand, pain is considered chronic when it is ongoing, lasting longer than six months. Chronic pain can result from an underlying issue or it may have no discernible cause at all [1,2].
Chronic pain is common. Global data indicates that around 1 in 10 adults are diagnosed with chronic pain each year . In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that about 50 million adults are living with this condition . Children also experience chronic pain at a surprisingly high rate, with studies indicating that between one-quarter and one-third of the world’s youth are affected by it . Common types of chronic pain include back pain, headache, neuropathy (nerve pain), and arthritis .
Chronic pain can be disabling. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” . Impairment from chronic pain looks different for everyone. Many chronic pain sufferers rely on the use of medications, therapies, and mobility aids to help with daily management. Some others experience pain that is completely debilitating. Recurrent pain is not always immobilizing, and pain levels often fluctuate. Still, most people with painful autoimmune and chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, ankylosing spondylitis, and ME/CFS experience some degree of pain at all times. One study estimated that 7.4% of American adults are living with pain that frequently limits their life and work activities .
Certain populations experience higher rates of chronic pain. Studies have shown that chronic pain rates are highest among women [8,9]. According to a recent U.S. survey, people living near or below the poverty line experienced higher incidences of ongoing pain. The same study found that chronic pain rates are elevated in rural populations .
Because there is no way to objectively measure it, many patients have experienced their pain being questioned, dismissed, or downplayed.
Chronic pain significantly raises the risk for mental health concerns. Up to 85% of chronic pain sufferers also experience depression . One study determined that patients with a history of chronic migraine were five times more likely to have a depressive episode for the first time. Despite these concerns, people with chronic pain and depression tend to use fewer mental health resources . Left untreated, pain and depression can become a recipe for deteriorating physical and emotional health. It is essential to address mental health concerns in tandem with chronic pain treatment.
The needs of chronic pain patients are often underserved. The high cost of inadequate or delayed pain treatment is well-documented in research. Because there is no way to visualize or objectively measure it, many patients have experienced their pain being questioned, dismissed, or downplayed by healthcare professionals.
This issue, often called medical gaslighting, can have traumatic effects on patients. It also drives disparities in health and treatment outcomes. Due to stigmas around gender, race, mental health, substance use, and more, certain groups suffer the biggest gaps in pain treatment [12,13]. For example, an analysis of 20 years of research from the U.S. showed that Black patients with pain were 22% less likely to receive pain medication from their doctors . The issue of medical gaslighting is complex and systemic, and there are no simple solutions. However, maintaining clear and direct communication with your physician can be a powerful asset in your treatment journey .
Chronic pain is costly. According to estimates, expenditures for healthcare and lost productivity related to chronic pain cost about $560 to $635 billion per year in the U.S . It is impossible to measure the enormous personal, emotional, and social burdens of living with chronic pain.
Chronic pain is a complex condition requiring personal and comprehensive care. As such, many experts advocate for a multidisciplinary approach to address the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and social effects of chronic pain. A thorough treatment routine may focus on:
Despite the many challenges that come with a chronic pain diagnosis, it is important to remember that this condition is treatable. With excellent management, support, and a committed team of healthcare providers, chronic pain patients can still live a full and vibrant life.
We created a free and comprehensive resource for anyone experiencing pain and other chronic health issues. The toolkit includes tips to help manage chronic pain, explore treatment options, and find support as you continue to move forward. Download your toolkit now.
Southern Pain and Neurological (2020). The Difference Between the Types of Pain: Acute vs. Chronic.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Chronic Pain.
Goldberg, D.S., McGee, S.J. (2011). Pain as a Global Public Health Priority. BMC Public Health.
Zelaya, C.E., Dahlhamer, J.M., Lucas, J.W., Connor, E.M. (2020). Chronic Pain and High-impact Chronic Pain Among U.S. Adults, 2019. National Center for Health Statistics.
World Health Organization (2021). WHO Issues New Guidelines on the Management of Chronic Pain in Children.
Paul, E. (2008). What Are the Most Common Types of Chronic Pain? ABC News.
U.S. Department of Justice. A Guide to Disability Rights Law.
International Association for the Study of Pain. Female Pain Issues.
Cleveland Clinic (2019). Here’s Why Women are More Likely to Have Chronic Pain.
Sheng, J., Liu, S,, Wang, Y., Cui, R., Zhang, X. (2017). The Link between Depression and Chronic Pain: Neural Mechanisms in the Brain. Neural plasticity.
Harvard Health Publishing (2017). Depression and Pain.
Wallace, B., Varcoe, C., Holmes, C. et al. (2021). Towards health equity for people experiencing chronic pain and social marginalization. Int J Equity Health.
Pagé, G., Mittinty,M.M., deGraft-Johnson, K.G. (2021). Disparities in Back Pain. IASP Fact Sheet.
The Washington Post (2019). Is bias keeping female, minority patients from getting proper care for their pain?
Gregory, N. (2018). Does your doctor trust you? The California State University.
AMA Journal of Ethics (2020). Addressing Obstacles to Evidence-Informed Pain Care. AMA J Ethics.
Whitten, C. E., & Cristobal, K. (2005). Chronic Pain is a Chronic Condition, Not Just a Symptom. The Permanente journal.
Mental Health America. Chronic Pain and Mental Health.
Liesbet G., Stefan J.F. (2019). Pain in Children: Management. IASP Fact Sheet.