A significant percentage of the workforce in the United States is living with chronic pain, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Approximately 15 percent of working adults in the United States reported having pain every day, or most days, for the past six months, according to the report in last month’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The study didn’t go into what kind of pain people experienced, or if their jobs contributed to their pain levels.
But past studies have shown that chronic pain is a problem for a significant portion of U.S. adults.
A 2015 report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that 25 million adults experienced chronic pain, and that nearly 40 million U.S. adults — 17 percent — have had severe pain.
“The number of people who suffer from severe and chronic pain is striking,” Dr. Josephine P. Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, said at the time of the study’s publication. “It may help shape future research, development, and targeting of effective pain interventions, including complementary health approaches.”
Pain on the rise
Dr. Jenna L. Walters, an assistant professor in the Division of Ambulatory Anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a pain management specialist, said that since the 1990s, there has been a rise in the number of people reporting chronic pain.
“It’s disturbing to hear that that many people are in daily pain,” she told Healthline.
Walters said it’s difficult to know if more people are actually in pain, or if doctors are just willing to ask patients about it.
“We have seen a rise. The question is, are we looking more now because of the opioid epidemic,” she said.
Dr. Silvia Martins, an epidemiologist, and co-director of the Substance Abuse Epidemiology Training Program at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said it’s hard to know how serious the pain is for those questioned in the survey.
“A single question in a survey about a health issue is very unspecific,” Martins told Healthline. “If these people were seen by a clinician it might be a little lower.”
According to the NIH, common forms of chronic pain can be related to osteoarthritis, low back pain, fibromyalgia, headache, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Walters said stress or a hectic lifestyle can also push pain levels higher.
“We know that the same pathways that process pain in your brain also process anxiety, depression, and emotional responses,” she explained.
What causes chronic pain?
Walters explained that the medical community is still trying to unravel the reasons people develop chronic pain.
“We've also seen a real escalation in arthritis and lower back pain as we see increase in obesity,” she said.
Walters also emphasized that chronic pain for employed Americans may not be tied to a physically demanding job.
“Certainly, physical labor can lead to arthritis… or muscle spasms, but we see a lot of patients in our clinic who sit at a desk job,” she said. “Sitting all day, our bodies weren’t meant to sit in a desk chair.”
Chronic pain doesn’t just take a toll psychologically and physically, but also financially.
A 2011 published study estimated that the annual cost of pain was between $560 billion and $635 billion (2010 dollars).
This was more than the cost for heart disease ($309 billion) and diabetes ($188 billion).
In recent years, physicians have tried to move away from medications like opioids for chronic pain as addictions to prescription and illicit opioids have drastically increased.
“For pain that isn’t that intense you can use nonmedication methods such as acupuncture or massages or other treatment,” said Martins. “Then, as a last resort, opioids.”
Walters said she emphasizes mindfulness and meditation in addition to pain pills to help patients relax and deal with their pain.
“We hear from my patients all the time that ‘When my stress level gets high, I can feel it in my pain level,’” she said.