Skip Navigation Bar
NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Chronic Pain

Safely Managing Chronic Pain

A woman touching her head

Helping Americans be as healthy and active as possible

is a goal shared by all health professionals. But assisting people in managing chronic pain is tough. Strong medicines that relieve the pain can also create new problems and must be used with great care. Those who prescribe these medicines, and those who use them, must learn to do so safely and effectively. Sometimes, non-drug therapies, such as massage, acupuncture, or exercise, can help, as well.

The Two Faces of Pain: Acute and Chronic

What is pain? The International Association for the Study of Pain describes it as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience.” There are two basic types of pain, and they are very different.

  • Acute pain, for the most part, has a physical cause, such as disease, inflammation, or injury to tissues. This type of pain generally comes on quickly, for example, after trauma or surgery, and may be accompanied by anxiety or emotional distress. Acute pain resolves when its cause is treated and healing occurs.
  • Chronic pain lasts longer than acute, generally over three months. It may start with an injury or other cause, but it persists even after healing has occurred. Chronic pain is widely believed to be a disease, with known changes in the nerves that get worse with time. Due to its persistence, it can cause major problems in every aspect of a person’s life, and is frequently resistant to many medical treatments. A person may even have two or more coexisting chronic pain conditions. Among the most common pain challenges for Americans are headaches, low back pain, arthritis pain, cancer pain, and nerve and muscle pain.

Fast Facts

  • More than 76 million people in the United States live with chronic pain, but surveys show that almost half of them receive no treatment.
  • The annual economic cost of chronic pain in the U.S. is estimated to be $100 billion, including healthcare expenses, lost income, and lost productivity at work and at home.
  • Research shows that almost 60 percent of older adults with pain have had it for more than a year.
  • According to recent research, close to five million Americans report recently taking prescription pain medication in a potentially unsafe way.
  • Although most people taking prescription pain medicines do so responsibly, there has been an increase in drug misuse or even abuse, especially of opioid pain relievers.
Spring 2011 MedlinePlus magazine cover

As noted earlier in this section, more than 76 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain. And yet, almost half of them receive no treatment.

The celebrities pictured on this issue’s cover have all had to learn how to manage chronic pain associated with either an injury or a disease. They have previously spoken out about their own experiences with managing that pain, in hopes that the American public will gain a better understanding that chronic pain can happen to anyone.

Paula Abdul—The former American Idol judge has battled chronic pain since a cheerleading accident when she was 17, and subsequent car accidents and a plane crash. The result is a diagnosis of complex regional pain syndrome, which she continues to manage.

George Clooney—During filming of the movie Syriana, the internationally known actor tore the dura tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Despite several operations, he reportedly still has residual pain and memory loss because of the injury.

Melanie Griffith—A skiing accident was followed by three knee operations and a dependence on prescription pain pills. After rehab and with the support of husband Antonio Banderas and her family, Griffith has improved.

Montel Williams—A decade of misdiagnoses left Williams in constant pain. Finally, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the actor and TV host has been managing his pain with exercise and a healthy diet.

Bo Derek—The actress has spoken out publicly about her own chronic back pain and has supported the call for more education about pain management.

Jerry Lewis—No comedian took more tumbles and pratfalls than Lewis, and one of the results has been chronic back pain for the past 45 years—which he now manages with a nerve stimulator.

Spring 2011 Issue: Volume 6 Number 1 Page 4