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Study Shows 40 Million Americans Have Severe Pain

Andreanna Photography via Flickr/

In one of the largest population studies on pain to date, researchers with the National Institutes of Health estimate that nearly 40 million Americans experience severe pain and more than 25 million have pain every day.

Those with severe pain were more likely to have worse health status, use more health care and suffer from more disability than those with less severe pain.

This story was originally published by Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit national health policy news service. 

“There are so many people in the severe pain category that something has to be done,” said Richard Nahin, the lead author of the analysis and lead epidemiologist for the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the arm of the NIH that funded the study. “If people are in the most severe category of pain, whatever treatment they are getting may be inadequate.”

Published in The Journal of Pain earlier this month, the study is an analysis of 2012 data from the National Health Interview Survey. It follows a comprehensive 2011 Institute of Medicine report on pain.

The analysis examined pain differences among ethnic groups. For example, Hispanics and Asians are less likely to report pain.

“If you are dealing with a minority group that doesn’t speak English, you need to pay greater attention to eliciting what they mean when they say they have mild pain or severe pain,” Nahin said.

The authors of the analysis hope their work will help inform greater research and better treatment options for people in pain.

“We’re doing a lot of research on the mechanism of pain and potential medications. The problem is there is no silver bullet,” said David Shurtleff, deputy director of NCCIH. “These data are giving us a better understanding of the pain conditions in the United States. We now can understand how sub-populations across age and across ethnic groups are experiencing pain.”

Shurtleff said that pain is a challenge to treat because it is not just about what happens to a person physically. Emotional and cognitive factors come into play as well. “Our major focus is on symptom management for pain,” he said. “It’s not necessarily [one] medication or behavioral intervention. It’s likely to be an integrative approach using multiple strategies to help patients alleviate their pain.”

Paul Gileno, who has had chronic pain since he broke his back 12 years ago, is doing just that. Gileno, who founded the U.S. Pain Foundation advocacy group, uses acupuncture, meditation and changes to his diet to manage his pain. He is now able to take fewer painkillers, he said.

“You need to keep trying these different modalities because you never want to give up hoping that your pain can be reduced or go away,” he says.

Gileno endured multiple surgeries and has tried many different pain medicines, but he still lives with pain every day.

“After I saw the last neurologist and the last doctor and they said, ‘Listen we’ve done everything we can do and I don’t think your pain is going to go away,’ I had to come to terms that I would have chronic pain for the rest of my life,” said Gileno. “Pain comes with a lot of baggage. It comes with depression. It comes with feeling judged and you feel less of a person. You become very isolated.”

Untreated pain is something Dr. Sean Morrison sees in many of his patients. He is a geriatrician and director of Palliative Care at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

“Pain causes a tremendous amount of suffering,” said Morrison. “It has huge economic costs, because of people who cannot work … And it has a significant impact on caregivers who are caring for people who have pain.”

As more effective treatments are developed for a greater number of diseases, a growing number of people will suffer from pain as a side-effect, he said.

“Many of the cancer drugs we use now result in permanent nerve injury and resulting neuropathic pain which is very difficult to treat,” he said.

Another of Morrison’s frustrations is the growing level of scrutiny physicians and pharmacists are under as they treat pain. The law enforcement crackdown on prescription drug abuse appears to be making it harder for legitimate pain patients to get the medicines they need.

“What’s happening is that the same drug is being used appropriately by group of patients and inappropriately in a large segment of the population,” Morrison said. “What we’ve seen is people in pain are the unintended victims of the war of drugs.”

NIH is in the process of finalizing a National Pain Strategy to coordinate efforts among different agencies to prevent, treat, manage and study pain.