Here in the U.S., we can’t escape pain: A large chunk of the American population suffers from some sort of severe or chronic pain, a new National Health Institute (NIH) study says. According to data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), 11.2 percent of American adults (25.3 million people) have experienced some form of pain every day for the past three months. The study also found that even more people — 17.6 percent of American adults — suffer from "severe levels" of pain.
Chronic pain is a complicated and stubborn condition, in which sufferers feel aches in their joints, bones, or muscles for months and even years. Whether the pain originates from an injury or an infection (or some unknown cause), chronic pain often lasts far too long — and can impair a person’s ability to function in and enjoy their daily lives. Chronic pain includes headaches, backaches, and arthritis.
“The number of people who suffer from severe and lasting pain is striking,” Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of NCCIH, said in a press release. “This analysis adds valuable new scope to our understanding of pain and could inform the National Pain Strategy in the areas of population research and disparities. It may help shape future research, development, and targeting of effective pain interventions, including complementary health approaches.”
The study also found that adults who were considered to be in the most “severe pain” groups had the worst health in general — and used more health care. Women, older people, and non-Hispanics were more likely to report pain.
“The experience of pain is subjective,” Richard Nahin, lead epidemiologist for NCCIH and an author of the study, said in the press release. “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.”
Because chronic pain is different for everyone — it could be caused by a number of reasons, including genetics, age, disease, or injury — doctors need to find unique treatments to suit each individual. One recent study found that many people who suffer from chronic pain seek out alternative treatments — such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation, and chiropractic care. According to the NIH analysis, 17.7 percent of chronic pain patients seeking out complementary treatments used natural products, 10.9 percent turned to deep breathing, and 10.1 percent practiced yoga, tai chi, or qi gong. Sometimes, alternative treatments can offer more holistic ways for people to manage their chronic pain rather than risk getting addicted to painkillers.
But there’s still a lot about chronic pain that we don’t understand. For example, there might be a genetic link between anxiety disorder and chronic pain, which would open up new pathways for treatment and research. And researchers have for a long time been examining the brain pathways related to chronic pain to help discern why our brain becomes hardwired over time to experience pain even if it really isn’t there. Perhaps alternative treatments are a more well-rounded way to tackle chronic pain, as they have a focus on mental health, as well — and can be safer than painkillers.