Chronic Pain: The Impact on the 50 Million Americans Who Have It

Experts say chronic pain affects people’s social lives as well as their ability to work. Images/Getty Images
  • Researchers estimate that 50 million adults in the United States are dealing with chronic pain.
  • They say chronic pain causes $80 billion in lost wages every year.
  • They’re hopeful the latest research can lead to better treatments.

Todd Condon, 56, who lives in Ticonderoga, New York, never has a moment without acute physical pain.

The primary cause of his pain is inflammation in his bones and joints from Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Bartonella, and frozen joint syndrome.

“I was bitten by a tick in 2016. But it wasn’t until 18 months later that I received the diagnosis,” he told Healthline. “Unfortunately, it came far too late to treat effectively.”

Condon says the pain never stops.

“It’s a terrible, tearing pain,” he said. “My therapy includes art, music, and collecting famous bass players’ autographs — anything to take my mind off the symptoms.”

Tammy Searle says chronic pain prevents her from making a lot of future plans. Photo courtesy of Tammy Searle.

Tammy Searle, 55, a professional speaker and trainer from Palm Desert, California, says her chronic pain has kept her from doing many of the things she loves.

“It seems to get worse each year as I have a connective tissue disorder: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome,” she told Healthline.

“I’ve tried to make the best of my life while dealing with chronic pain. The saddest part is not being able to plan in the future because I don’t know how I’ll feel that day,” she said.

Chronic pain is common

Condon and Searle are far from alone.

Experts say in a new study that chronic pain affects more than 20 percent of Americans at any given time.

The numbers were discovered after the 2019 National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added a new set of questions relating to pain to its National Health Interview Survey (NHIS)Trusted Source.

The NHIS is a widespread household-based annual survey that offers valuable insights into the health status of adults across the United States.

In the study, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts Eye and Ear, both Harvard University hospitals in Boston, report that 50 million (about 20 percent) U.S. adults experience chronic pain. This is based on analysis of the new NHIS data from 31,997 adults across the nation.

“Millions of Americans right now are suffering from chronic pain,” Dr. Robert Jason Yong, the medical director of the pain management center at Brigham and the study’s corresponding author, told Healthline.

“It is the No. 1 reason why patients see a doctor. The impact of chronic pain on people’s lives is enormous,” he said.

Yong says this study has come closer than any other to understanding just how common and devastating chronic pain is in America.

“Other studies have touched on this, but data from pain clinics, hospitals and other providers tends to only provide information on people seeking out medical attention,” he said.

“Having the NHIS data to validate previous studies is incredibly impactful,” he noted.


ADVERTISEMENTNeed to get moving?

We’ve got you covered with top fitness products. From at-home gym equipment to smart technology that tracks your movement, find what you need to kick-start your fitness journey.SHOP NOW

The effect on work and the economy

The study’s authors note that respondents with chronic pain reported missing significantly more workdays than those without chronic pain (10 days versus fewer than 3 days).

The authors used these figures to quantify the total economic impact of chronic pain on Americans at nearly $80 billion in lost wages.

The researchers estimate the total value of lost productivity due to chronic pain to be nearly $300 billion annually.

People with chronic pain also reported more limitations to their social activities and daily living.

Back, hip, knee, and foot distress were the most common sources of pain reported. Physical and massage therapies were most commonly sought as treatments.

In a press statement, Dr. Neil Bhattacharyya, FACS, a professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, said the impetus for the study arose from the “day-to-day clinical finding that many of our chronic sinusitis patients also reported headache, migraine, and other forms of chronic pain.”

That’s when he and his colleagues decided to look at the bigger picture of chronic pain.

“We were somewhat surprised at the large-scale presence of chronic pain in the U.S.,” said Bhattacharyya.

New treatments coming soon?

Researchers placed their initial focus on ascertaining national estimates of prevalence and impact but plan to analyze further other questions included in the survey.

Their findings may reveal more specific trends across the United States related to pain and its treatment, especially regarding opioid use. Also, it could help experts devise new treatment modalities.

“Given the overall scale and impact of pain on Americans, we see that a multimodal, multidisciplinary approach to treating pain is even more important than what we have been emphasizing over the past few decades,” Yong said in a press statement.

“Pain medicine is relatively young as a field, and it encompasses specialties including emergency medicine, anesthesia, psychiatry, neurology, physiatry, and radiology. We need all of the tools in our armamentarium to treat patients suffering from chronic pain,” he added