A Disturbing Number of Americans Are in Pain

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An analysis conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health has found that an alarming number of Americans experience varying levels of pain on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, people who suffer from frequent bouts of severe pain are also having to cope with diminished health.

The new study, which now appears in the Journal of Pain, was based on data collected by the NIH during the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. An updated pain severity coding system was used to group nearly 9,000 participants into five discrete categories based on their pain persistence; participants were asked how many days they experienced pain in the last three months and its associated level of bothersomeness.


Not surprisingly, results showed that most American adults have experienced at least some level of pain in their lives, whether it be something minor or severe. But an estimated 25.3 million adults (11.2%) had pain every day for the preceding three months, and nearly 40 million adults (17.6%) experience severe levels of pain.


Here’s what else the researchers found:

  • An estimated 23.4 million adults (10.3 percent) experience a lot of pain
  • An estimated 126 million adults (55.7 percent) reported some type of pain in the three months prior to the survey
  • Adults in the two most severe pain groups were likely to have worse health status, use more health care, and suffer from more disability than those with less severe pain. However, approximately half of individuals with the most severe pain still rated their overall health as good or better
  • There were associations between pain severity and race, ethnicity, language preference, gender, and age. Women, older individuals, and non-Hispanics were more likely to report any pain, while Asians were less likely
  • Minorities who did not choose to be interviewed in English are markedly less likely to report pain
  • The impact of gender on pain varies by race and ethnicity

According to an NIH summary of the findings:

Pain is one of the leading reasons Americans turn to complementary health approaches such as yoga, massage, and meditation—which may help manage pain and other symptoms that are not consistently addressed by prescription drugs and other conventional treatments. For this reason, NCCIH research priorities include the study of complementary approaches to determine their effectiveness for treating symptoms such as pain.


It’s hoped that this study will inform the National Pain Strategy in the areas of population research and disparities.

“This report begins to answer calls for better national data on the nature and extent of the pain problem,” added study co-author Richard L. Nahin. “The experience of pain is subjective. It’s not surprising then that the data show varied responses to pain even in those with similar levels of pain. Continuing analyses of these data may help identify subpopulations that would benefit from additional pain treatment options.”


Read more about the report here and here. And check out the study at the Journal of Pain: “Estimates of Pain Prevalence and Severity in Adults: United States, 2012”.

Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image by misspsycopath/Deviant Art/CC SA 3.0