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Text version of Chronic pain: a major public health problem


Chronic pain: a major public health problem

The Institute of Medicine says chronic pain in the U.S.…1

  • Affects about 100 million adults
  • Costs $560–$635 billion annually (health care, lost productivity)
  • Is a major cause of missed work

Chronic pain is…

  • Often defined as pain >12 weeks
  • Complex and unique to each person

Chronic pain can lead to additional problems, including…

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • More difficulty moving, walking
  • Depression, anxiety
  • Reduced quality of life
  • Over time, negative changes to the brain

Chronic pain is often not treated adequately

While current medical approaches can offer some help, there are concerns about side effects and potential for addiction. Additional treatment approaches are needed.

Complementary approaches show promise

  • Mind and body practices such as meditation for managing pain
  • Spinal manipulation, massage, and yoga for chronic back pain
  • Massage, tai chi for fibromyalgia
  • Acupuncture for osteoarthritis pain

Pain is a leading condition for which complementary practices are used2

  1. Back pain 17.1%
  2. Neck pain 5.9%
  3. Joint pain 5.2%
  4. Arthritis 3.5%
  5. Anxiety 2.8%
  6. Cholesterol 2.1%
  7. Head or chest cold 2.0%
  8. Other musculoskeletal 1.8%
  9. Severe headache or migraine 1.6%
  10. Insomnia 1.4%

NCCIH research is tackling the problem of chronic pain

  • We spend about 30% of our research budget on pain
  • We bring cutting-edge tools to the study of pain
  • Our research results affect guidelines for and practice of medical care
  • We are building knowledge about the placebo effect

If you are considering a complementary health approach for chronic pain…

  • Look for science-based information
  • Talk to your health care provider
  • Find trained and experienced practitioners
  • Discuss your individual needs and abilities with the practitioner

While mind and body approaches provided by experienced practitioners are generally safe, be aware of any changes in your pain. If pain worsens, let your health care provider know.


  • 1 Institute of Medicine. Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research, 2011.
  • 2 Diseases/Conditions for Which Complementary Approaches Are Most Frequently Used Among Adults. Barnes PM, et al. CDC National Health Statistics Report #12. Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults and Children: United States, 2007.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Institutes of Health
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

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This page last modified September 24, 2017