Chronic Pain: The Hidden Epidemic

May 27, 1983

Report Outline
Extent of Problem Today
Growth of Pain Clinics
Advances in Treatments
Special Focus

Extent of Problem Today

Contrast Between Acute and Chronic Pain

Millions of Americans suffer from a disease for which no medical specialty exists. This condition is scarcely taught in medical schools, and in many cases doctors are unable to diagnose, treat or relieve the problem. The disease in question is chronic pain, usually defined as any type of persistent pain that lasts more than six months. Dr. John Bonica, professor of anesthesiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle and the founder of the nation's first chronic pain clinic, characterizes chronic pain as a “hidden epidemic.” “Nearly one-third of the [U.S.] population has persistent or recurrent chronic pain,” Dr. Bonica said, “and of those, one-half to two-thirds are either partially or totally disabled for periods of days, weeks or months, and sometimes permanently.”

Although most prevalent in older persons, chronic pain affects all age groups, and does not discriminate on the basis of sex, race or ethnic origin. Chronic pain not only causes untold physical discomfort for tens of millions of persons, it also accounts for billions of dollars in medical bills, disability payments and lost productivity and income. The total annual cost is about $50 billion, according to estimates by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The approximately 40 million Americans who suffer from chronic headaches account for $4 billion of that total. Migraine sufferers alone lose an estimated 65 million workdays a year due to the debilitating effects of that type of headache.

The most common form of chronic pain is backache, especially low-back pain Experts believe about seven million Americans suffer from back pain so severe that they are either partially disabled or unable to work. Other common types of chronic pain are associated with cancer, arthritis and malfunctioning nerves. One of the most perplexing types of chronic pain is phantom limb pain, in which an amputee experiences extremely painful, burning sensations in what feels like the amputated limb.

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