4 Common Types of Chronic Pain

Conditions Most Commonly Seen in American Adults

Man sitting on bed with backache

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Chronic pain is commonly defined as any pain that lasts more than 12 weeks. Whereas acute pain is the normal sensation which alerts us to an injury or illness, chronic pain is one that persists, often for months or even longer.

Chronic pain is estimated to affect 20 percent of U.S. adults. It can be caused by a musculoskeletal injury (involving the bones, muscles, or joints), nervous system dysfunction, chronic diseases, and autoimmune disorders.

Learn about some of the most common causes affecting American adults today below.

Chronic Back Pain

According to research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, no less than 84 percent of adults in the U.S. will experience chronic back pain at some point in their life. Often occurring in the lower back, the pain may be caused by an injury or develop progressively due to arthritis, osteoporosis, or normal wear and tear.

Back pain has become an epidemic in the United States, and it is a leading cause of disability and lost productivity in the workplace today. Common causes of chronic back pain include:

  • Slipped or bulging discs, typically caused by twisting or lifting injuries
  • Spinal stenosis involving the narrowing of the spinal canal and compression of nerves
  • Compression fractures, commonly associated with osteoporosis
  • Soft-tissue damage caused by strain or trauma to back muscles, ligaments, or tendons
  • Spinal fractures
  • Structural deformities such as scoliosis (the abnormal sideways curvature of the spine) or lordosis (the excessive inward curvature of the lower back)

Chronic Headaches

According to research, 50 percent of the adult population will report headaches during the course of a year, while more than 90 percent will report a lifetime history of headaches.

A chronic headache is one that occurs for at least 15 days per month for no less than three consecutive months. The most common types of chronic headaches are:

  • Tension headaches caused by stress, fatigue, or sleeping wrong
  • Eye strain headaches caused when the ocular muscles become strained
  • Migraines caused by nervous system triggers or hormonal irregularities
  • Cluster headaches caused by the enlargement of blood vessels in the head

Chronic Joint Pain

Joint pain, typically caused by injury, infection, or advancing age, is one of the leading types of chronic pain among American adults. According to a report from the U.S. Bone and Joint Initiative, arthritis is the most common cause, affecting over 51 million Americans (or roughly one of every two adults).

Some of the more common types of chronic joint pain are:

  • Osteoarthritis, common in the elderly and usually affecting the larger joints
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder which causes swelling of the joint spaces
  • Repetitive motion injury, common in athletes and people who do repetitive physical activities
  • Bursitis, caused by swelling of the fluid-filled sacs that cushion the joints
  • Tendinitis, caused by the inflammation of joint tendons

Chronic Nerve Pain

Chronic nerve (neuropathic) pain affects one of every 10 Americans, according to a study from the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. This commonly happens when the nerves are either compressed, damaged, or exposed to drugs that strip their protective exterior coating (called the myelin sheath).

Some of the more common examples of chronic neuropathic pain are:

  • Sciatica, typically caused by nerve compression which triggers a shooting pain down the leg
  • Diabetic neuropathy, often occurring in the hands or feet
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome, commonly associated with repetitive motion
  • Postherpetic neuralgia, a type of chronic pain which persists after a shingles outbreak
  • Trigeminal neuralgia, caused by injury to the trigeminal nerve of the face
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  1. Dahlhamer J, Lucas J, Zelaya, C, et al. Prevalence of Chronic Pain and High-Impact Chronic Pain Among Adults—United States, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2018;67:1001–1006. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6736a2

  2. Raffaeli W, Arnaudo E. Pain as a disease: an overviewJ Pain Res. 2017;10:2003–2008. Published 2017 Aug 21. doi:10.2147/JPR.S138864

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