1 in 5 U.S. Adults Suffer From Chronic Pain, CDC Estimates

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September 17, 2018


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About 20 percent of U.S. adults live with chronic pain, which frequently limits leisure or work activities, according to a new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That represents about 50 million people with chronic pain and about 20 million people (about 8 percent) with “high-impact chronic pain,” which the CDC says severely affects a person’s quality of life. The CDC’s new report is the agency’s first-ever assessment of high-impact chronic pain.

“Pain is a component of many chronic conditions, and chronic pain is emerging as a health concern on its own, with negative consequences to individual persons, their families, and society as a whole,” the CDC states.

CDC researchers looked at data from 33,028 adults in the 2016 National Health Interview Survey, a cross-sectional, in-person survey. They defined “chronic pain” as pain on most days or every day over the past six months, and “high-impact chronic pain” as chronic pain that limited life or work activities on most days or every day during the past six months.

Researchers found that in both categories chronic pain was more common for women, older adults, previously but not currently employed adults, adults living in poverty, adults with public health insurance and rural residents. Education seemed to be a factor as well, the CDC found. Both rates of chronic pain were lower among adults with at least a bachelor’s degree, the agency found.

Adding to the problem of chronic pain is the opioid epidemic across the nation, which has put many prescribed painkillers under intense scrutiny and restrictions. As a result, more doctors are referring patients into physical therapy programs.

There are many causes of chronic pain that requires thorough analysis by a primary care doctor and specialists. Disease can be the underlying cause of chronic pain, including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. Persistent pain may also be due to serious health issues such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, stomach ulcers, and even gallbladder disease.

“If you’re not getting better, you need to see your physician because we know that most sprains and strains get better — 90 percent of them — within a few weeks or sooner,” said Ronald Tolchin, D.O., medical director of the Baptist Center for Spine Care, part of Baptist Health Neuroscience Center. “If it doesn’t get better, something else is going on and it needs to be evaluated by a professional.”

In many cases, however, the source of chronic pain cannot be easily diagnosed and that can create a psychological dimension which can add to a person’s discomfort level, says Diana Solares, a physical therapist at West Kendall Baptist Hospital.

“With chronic pain, it may not mean that your tissues are damaged,” says Ms. Solares. “At that point, your tissues are most likely healed. It’s just that the nerves are extra sensitive to any kind of stimulus. Understanding that something isn’t damaged can decrease the fear and anxiety.”

Nonetheless, for some people not knowing the cause of pain can be scary even after seeing a doctor who has not been able to determine the precise cause of the pain, she adds. “That fear and anxiety can add to even more pain, like a vicious cycle,” she says. “But if you’ve been cleared by a doctor, you probably don’t have a serious condition.”

Back pain is one of the most common complaints from chronic pain sufferers — and the second-most common cause of a visit to the doctor after the common cold. Wear and tear on the spine over the years can produce conditions such as disc degeneration, spinal stenosis that produce neck and back pain. People 30 to 60 years old are more likely to have disc-related disorders, while those over age 60 are more likely to have pain related to osteoarthritis.

“Exercise increases the blood flow to the back, providing needed oxygen and nutrients,” said Dr. Tolchin. “Exercise also strengthens the muscles around the spine, taking pressure off the bones and other structures in the back.”

Brian Betancourt, exercise physiologist at Baptist Hospital South Florida, works with patients that suffer from chronic pain.

“When I get somebody with arthritis and they’ve been cleared by a doctor and a physical therapist, then I’m good to go,” says Mr. Betancourt. “I’m essentially picking exercises for them that are low-skill and involves moderate physical activity and exercises that they feel comfortable doing. The important thing is for them to build confidence about moving again.”

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