Chronic Pain in the US: Alternatives to Curb Its Rise

Why we need options other than physical treatments to combat the rise of chronic pain in the US

Terri Leichty
Reviewed by 
Dr. Abigail Hirsch, Ph.D
June 2, 2021
 min. read

The past year or so has been challenging for all of us due to the global pandemic and all of the ways it has impacted us and the world we live in. We've all coped using our own strategies. Andrea comforted herself with food. Chris took up drinking a few glasses of wine every evening to take the edge off. Mary started smoking again. Many of us stopped exercising for months as gyms closed, and some of us experienced psychological distress as we adjusted to working from home and remote schooling our kids alongside the ever-present specter of COVID-19 and the fear and stress it caused. It's been a lot to manage, especially for those who also deal with chronic pain.

One might wonder at some point if all of this psychological distress and the various negative health behaviors that we've developed might exacerbate our chronic pain. This certainly makes intuitive sense to most of us. But here’s an interesting twist. Flip that question about poor health behaviors worsening pain, and one might have to conclude that it’s possible to reduce or stop the chronic pain we feel by managing our depression, overeating/drinking, and smoking, among other behaviors? Perhaps we have more control over our chronic pain than we realize!


Read on to learn how widespread chronic pain is in the U.S. adult population and how it has increased over the last 15+ years for all pain types (joints, lower back, neck, facial/jaw, and head) across all demographics. In addition, find out how various subgroups compare to each other when it comes to chronic pain. Most importantly, this article will explore how behavioral and psychological factors can impact our experience with chronic pain.

Chronic Pain in the U.S.

Until recently, there has been little focus on how pain trends break down by demographics like sex, race, and socioeconomic status. With an epidemic of U.S. opioid-related deaths on our hands and the fact that chronic pain drastically and negatively impacts the quality of our lives, researchers Anna Zajacova, Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk, and Zachary Zimmer published a study in February 2021 that sheds light on pain trends, correlating factors, and how individuals might be able to control their chronic pain to a certain extent by modifying certain behaviors.

Study Findings & Pain Trends

The researchers analyzed chronic pain trends in American adults over 16 years. The results are pretty startling. To begin, chronic pain was already prevalent back in 2002, impacting nearly half (49%) of adults in the U.S. aged 25 to 84. By 2018, this statistic rose to 54%, equivalent to an additional 10.5 million Americans dealing with chronic pain. Other study findings showed that none of the population groups underwent a significant decline in pain during that period, and the experience of chronic pain rose for all pain sites that were studied, including the joints, lower back, neck, facial/jaw, and head. Breaking down individuals by sex, race, and socioeconomic status, men and Black adults were found to have steeper increases in "any pain" compared to other groups, while lower socioeconomic groups and uneducated adults experienced higher levels of chronic pain than those with more affluence and college degrees.

Factors That Impact Chronic Pain

The researchers were also able to identify multiple factors that were related to the pain trends. Notably, psychological distress was most strongly associated with pain increases in adults between the ages of 25 and 44. Not surprisingly, given that 85% of chronic pain patients experience depression, the rising mental health challenges accounted for 50% of the increased pain cases between the start and end of the study. Other behavioral factors also stood out, namely smoking, alcohol use, and body weight. In older age groups, psychological distress, alcohol use, and body weight were also strongly correlated to increases in pain, although arthritis proved to be the most important factor.

These results show that various psychological and behavioral factors can increase or decrease the chance that someone like Andrea, Chris, or Mary will suffer from chronic pain. If we can control some of these behaviors - like whether or not we smoke, how often we drink alcohol, how much we choose to eat, and how frequently we exercise - can we possibly lessen or eliminate our experience of chronic pain? If we strive to take care of our mental well-being, might we be able to stave off physical pain? At Lin, we help you determine the true cause(s) of your pain -including physical and behavioral/psychological - and then connect you with a personal health navigational coach who is dedicated to helping you build the daily habits that can tone down your pain.

Start finding real relief from chronic pain today - give Lin a try.

Start finding real relief from chronic pain today - give Lin a try.

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