Chronic Pain in the US: New Data

In 2020, 54 million US adults with chronic pain managed their symptoms with a mix of medication and nonpharmacologic therapies but one in four relied on medication alone, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show.

Results from the annual National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) show that over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers were the most commonly used pharmacologic treatment and exercise was the most common choice among nonpharmacologic options.

The results also revealed that prescription opioid use for chronic pain decreased from 15.2% in 2019 to 13.5% in 2020. However, there was no corresponding increase in nonpharmacologic therapies, despite current CDC guidelines that recommend maximizing the use of medication alternatives.

“Public health efforts may reduce health inequities by increasing access to pain management therapies so that all persons with chronic pain can receive safe and effective care,” S. Michaela Rikard, PhD, and colleagues write.

The findings were published online November 20 in a research letter in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  

Among 31,500 survey respondents, 7400 indicated that they had pain on most days or every day for the past 3 months.

The survey collected data on self-reported opioid prescriptions in the past 3 months, as well as prescription and nonprescription opiate use during the same time period.

Among adult respondents, 60% used a combination of pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatments for pain and almost 27% used medications alone. Older adults, those with low incomes, uninsured individuals, and those living in the South were among those least likely to turn to nonpharmacologic treatment for pain.

After exercise, complementary therapies were the most commonly used nonpharmacologic options, including massage, meditation or guided imagery, and spinal manipulation or other forms of chiropractic care.

For those taking medications, 76% self-reported using OTC pain relievers for pain, followed by prescription nonopioids (31%) and prescription opioids (13.5%).

Of those who used both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic therapies, about half reported nonopioid and nonpharmacologic therapy use and 8% reported combined use of opioids, nonopioids, and nonpharmacologic therapy.

After adjustment for multiple factors, investigators found those who were older, had public insurance, or had more severe pain were more likely to use prescription opioids. They also reported severe pain (22%), but 4% reported only mild pain.

Study limitations included generalizability only to noninstitutionalized civilian adults, potential recall bias, and cross-sectional results that do not include patient or treatment history.

“Despite its limitations, this study identifies opportunities to improve guideline-concordant use of pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic therapies among adults with chronic pain,” the authors write.

There was no specific funding source for the study. The authors have reported no relevant financial disclosures.

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