Around 17 million Americans had chronic pain so bad in 2021 that it drastically interfered with their lives, according to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The analysis estimates that nearly 52 million American adults—about one in every five—suffered from chronic pain in 2021.
CDC researchers examined recent data collected from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), an in-person survey of households meant to be representative of the country as a whole. Their study was published last month in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Based on this data, the authors estimated that 20.9% of adults in the U.S. (51.6 million) experienced chronic pain in 2021, defined as pain lasting three or more months. About 6.9% (17.1 million) experienced high-impact chronic pain, defined as pain that caused “substantial restriction to daily activities.”
While pain might be universal, there were key differences in the demographics of chronic pain. Non-Hispanic Native Americans, bisexual Americans, and Americans who have experienced divorce or separation had the highest prevalence of chronic pain. Older adults, unemployed people, rural residents, and those living in poverty were also more likely to experience chronic pain.
The percentage of Americans experiencing chronic pain has remained roughly constant since 2016, which was the last time the CDC conducted a similar analysis. But there does seem to have been a slight downtick in those with high-impact chronic pain (in 2016, about 8% of Americans were estimated to have it). And chronic pain in general appears to occur more commonly than many other chronic ailments in the country.
In a paper published this week in JAMA Network Open, a separate team of researchers looked at recent NHIS data on chronic pain. They found that there are more new cases of chronic pain annually than there are new cases of depression, diabetes, and hypertension. They also found that about two-thirds of Americans who reported chronic pain in 2019 continued to experience it a year later; only 10% of people who experienced chronic pain in 2019 were completely pain-free a year later.
While there are many options available to treat mild and/or short-lasting acute pain, the same isn’t true for effective chronic pain treatment. Many existing medications, such as opioids, tend to only provide modest improvement at best and can come with serious side effects that limit their usefulness. But scientists are starting to test out new avenues of treatment, including lab-made antibodies. And there have been recent substantial advances in handling specific kinds of chronic pain, like migraines.
One important tool for stemming the tide of chronic pain is likely to be prevention.
In the new JAMA study, the authors note that about 15% of Americans who experienced non-chronic pain in 2019 then went on to have chronic pain in 2020. That finding suggests that at least some cases of chronic pain could be stopped with early and effective enough treatment, the authors say.
“These results emphasize the high disease burden of chronic pain in the U.S. adult population and the need for early management of pain before it becomes chronic,” they wrote.