The 6 Most Common Chronic Pain Conditions

Millions of Americans live with chronic pain

Chronic pain is considered an epidemic in America. Not only are millions of people living with it, but if you add up the cost of treatment and lost productivity, it comes to an estimated economic impact of $635 billion each year.

Many of the most common chronic pain conditions are well known, but others have gone unrecognized and underdiagnosed for decades—leaving untold numbers of people without proper treatment. 

The most common chronic pain conditions in the U.S. are:

  • Migraine
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Osteoarthritis (OA)
  • Vulvodynia
  • Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
  • Fibromyalgia

Together, those six conditions affect more than 150 million Americans.

Defining Chronic Pain Conditions

Chronic pain is defined as pain lasting for three months or longer, causing either significant emotional distress or functional disability, that is not explained by another chronic condition.

Migraine, IBS, vulvodynia, and fibromyalgia are defined as chronic primary pain conditions, meaning they involve pain not due to other conditions. 

OA and TMJ are considered chronic secondary musculoskeletal pain, which means pain from a musculoskeletal problem (inflammation, joint damage) is a problem in its own right. They are included in this list due to their huge impact, because their major symptom is pain, and because primary treatments are aimed at relieving pain.

Some other major causes of chronic pain include cancer, low back pain, and neuropathy (pain from nerve damage). They weren’t included in this list because the pain is a consequence of another condition or because pain isn’t their main symptom.

1

Migraine

A young woman sits on the side of the bed, holding her head. A glass of water and medication sit on a table.


AsiaVision / Getty Images

U.S. prevalence: 39 million people; 12% of the population

Worldwide, migraine is the third most prevalent illness. It's a neurological condition that causes intense headaches and sometimes a symptom called a migraine “aura.” More than 15 migraine attacks a month is considered chronic migraine.

Symptoms

Migraines often come in four phases, each of which has its own set of symptoms.

  • Prodrome: Food cravings, constipation or diarrhea, mood changes, stiff muscles, fatigue, nausea
  • Aura: Visual phenomena like flashing lights, seeing spots, or partial vision loss; vertigo, confusion, tingling or numbness; smelling odors that aren’t there; hearing things that aren’t there; partial paralysis
  • Headache: Throbbing, pulsating, or pounding pain, usually on one side of the head; sensitivity to light and sound; nausea and vomiting; hot and cold spells; dizziness, sadness, or anxiety
  • Postdrome: Fatigue, mood changes, muscle aches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating

Causes and Triggers

Migraines are believed to be caused by genetic factors and several types of dysfunction in the brain, including pain pathways and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers).

Several exacerbating factors are believed to trigger the migraines themselves, such as:

Diagnosis

No test can conclusively diagnose migraines, so your doctor will consider your symptoms and family history, as well as conduct tests to rule out other possible causes of symptoms.

You may be given several blood and imaging tests to check for stroke, multiple sclerosis, seizures, thyroid disease, swelling of the optic nerve, and a host of other conditions.

Treatment

Treatment for migraines may include:

You may also be able to learn how to prevent your migraines.

2

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

A black woman lies on the couch, clutching her gut in pain.

Grace Cary / Getty Images

U.S. prevalence: 39 million people; 12% of the population

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is classified as a functional gastrointestinal disorder. Abdominal pain is a major symptom, with severity ranging from annoying to debilitating.

Symptoms

The predominant symptoms of IBS include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Acid reflux
  • Bloating
  • Decreased appetite
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation
  • Excessive belching
  • Gassiness/flatulence
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Lump in the throat (globus)
  • Nausea

Different types of IBS include diarrhea-predominant (IBS-D), constipation-predominant (IBS-C), or alternating-type (IBS-A), which is characterized by alternating episodes of diarrhea and constipation.

Causes

The causes of IBS aren’t clear, but it’s believed to be a combination of:

  • Genetics
  • Gut motility problems
  • Pain sensitivity
  • Disordered communication between the brain and gut
  • Stress or trauma early in life
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Digestive tract infections
  • Bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine
  • Food intolerances or sensitivities

Diagnosis

No test can diagnose IBS, so doctors run blood tests, check for blood in the stool, and sometimes use imaging tests like colonoscopy to rule out other possible causes of symptoms. Diagnostic criteria include:

  • Symptoms present at least one day a week for the prior three months
  • Recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort

In addition, you must have at least two of the following:

  • Pain relieved by bowel movement
  • Onset of pain is related to a change in frequency of bowel movements
  • Onset of pain is related to a change in the appearance of stool

Treatment

IBS treatment plans should be tailored to your specific symptoms and triggers. A typical plan includes:

3

Osteoarthritis

An X-ray of a knee shows damage from arthritis.

SMC Images / Getty Images

U.S. prevalence: 32.5-million people; 10% of the population

The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) involves the breakdown of cartilage, which is a flexible tissue inside joints that enables your bones to glide over each other.

Symptoms

The symptoms of OA are caused by the loss of cartilage in the joints and degeneration of the joints themselves. Primary OA symptoms include:

  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Limited range of motion
  • Swelling

The most common joints affected are the neck, low back, knees, hips, shoulders, or fingers.

Causes and Risk Factors

OA, often called “wear-and-tear” arthritis, used to be considered an inevitable part of aging. However, experts now know that a combination of many factors combine to cause degradation of the cartilage and joints.

While the exact causes of OA aren't yet clear, experts have identified several risk factors.

  • Age: It’s more common over 40, and especially over 65.
  • Sex: It’s more prevalent in men until age 45, after which it’s more prevalent in women.
  • Injury: About 12% of all OA diagnoses are considered post-traumatic arthritis.
  • Genetics: Having a parent or a sibling with OA means you’re more likely to get it.
  • Lifestyle factors: Being overweight or having a job that puts extra stress on your joints increases the likelihood that you’ll develop OA.

Diagnosis

If you have symptoms that suggest OA, your doctor will likely perform a physical exam, order blood tests for inflammatory markers and to rule out other causes, and possibly send you for imaging tests such as X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging.


The specific diagnostic criteria differ depending on which joint(s) you’re having trouble with.

Treatment

OA treatment may include:

4

Vulvodynia

U.S. prevalence: An estimated 26 million people, or 8% of the population, with many cases undiagnosed.

Vulvodynia is chronic pain in the vulva, which is the exterior portion of the female genitalia. It can impact the labia, clitoris, or the opening of the vagina, and makes sexual intercourse painful.

Symptoms

Symptoms vary, but the pain of vulvodynia can be constant or come and go. It’s often described as burning, stinging, itching, throbbing, or rawness. Most cases fall into one of two subgroups: generalized vulvodynia and localized vulvodynia. The localized form is more common.

Symptoms of generalized vulvodynia include:

  • Pain throughout the vulvar region, sometimes spreading to the perineum, mons pubis, or inner thigh
  • Pain may or may not be triggered by pressure or touch
  • While most cases don’t involve visible findings, the vulvar tissue appears inflamed in some people

Symptoms of localized vulvodynia include:

  • Pain only at one site
  • Pain triggered by intercourse, gynecologic exam, tampon insertion, tight clothing, or riding a bicycle, motorcycle, or horse
  • Higher likelihood of red, inflamed tissue

Causes

Researchers haven’t yet uncovered the cause of vulvodynia, but several possible causes have been proposed, including:

  • Allergic response to irritants
  • Excess oxalate crystals in the urine
  • Hypersensitivity to yeast
  • Irritation of pelvic floor muscles
  • Nerve damage

Vulvodynia is especially common in people with fibromyalgia, suggesting a possible common underlying mechanism.

Vulvodynia is not believed to be related to any kind of infection, including sexually transmitted infections.

Diagnosis

Vulvodynia is diagnosed based on symptoms and ruling out other conditions with similar symptoms, including skin disorders and sexually transmitted infections.

Your doctor may use a cotton swab to apply pressure to multiple areas of your vulva to see where and how much it hurts. Depending on the appearance of the skin, they may perform a biopsy. A colposcopy, which uses a specialized instrument to examine the vulva, may also be ordered.

Treatment

Treatments for vulvodynia are aimed at alleviating symptoms and may include:

Many people with chronic pain have more than one condition. For example, it's not unusual for someone with fibromyalgia to have TMJ, vulvodynia, and/or IBS.

5

Temporomandibular Joint Disorder

X-ray of a human head shows the temporomandibular joint.


stockdevil / Getty Images

U.S. prevalence: 10 million people; 3% of the population

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) is chronic jaw pain from the temporomandibular joint or surrounding muscles. The temporomandibular joint connects your lower jaw to your skull.

TMJ is the name of the joint, but it is also often used as the name of the condition, which is alternatively called TMD, for temporomandibular disorder.

Symptoms

Symptoms of TMJ include:

  • Radiating pain in the jaw, face, or neck
  • Jaw stiffness
  • Impaired range of motion in the jaw
  • Painful popping or clicking with jaw movement
  • Change in bite alignment

Causes

TMJ is believed to be caused, in some cases, by trauma to the jaw. However, the cause of most cases is never known. The condition is more common in women, so researchers are investigating a possible connection with female hormones.

TMJ may also be linked to:

  • Teeth grinding (bruxism)
  • Anxiety, stress, or depression
  • Structural abnormalities in the jaw

Diagnosis

TMJ is diagnosed based on symptoms, including severity, location, and quality of the pain. Your doctor may ask questions or order tests to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, including dental problems, migraine, and trigeminal neuralgia.

Your doctor may also assess the range of motion in your jaw and check surrounding muscles for tenderness. In some cases, he or she may order imaging tests.

Treatment

TMJ treatment usually starts conservatively and progresses if symptoms aren’t alleviated. The first step is self-care, including:

  • Resting your jaw
  • Eating soft foods
  • Applying heat to the jaw
  • Stretching exercises
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Avoiding triggering behaviors, such as jaw clenching or chewing gum

Your doctor may recommend massage therapy, physical therapy, or a dental device to help you stop clenching or grinding, especially while you sleep.

The next step is medication, which ranges from over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, naproxen) to prescription muscle relaxants and tricyclic antidepressants, which are commonly prescribed for several pain conditions.

Severe TMJ that doesn’t respond well to these treatments may require surgery, but this is rare and controversial.

6

Fibromyalgia

U.S. prevalence: An estimated 10 million people; 3% of the population; most cases remain undiagnosed

Fibromyalgia is a condition of “central sensitization,” meaning the pain originates from a central nervous system that’s become hypersensitive to pain signals.

Symptoms

Fibromyalgia can involve more than 60 symptoms, with each person experiencing a unique mix. Primary symptoms include:

Symptoms may be constant, or they may have remissions (when symptoms are light or absent) and flares (when symptoms are more severe).

Causes

The causes of fibromyalgia aren’t yet understood. Possible causes include a combination of the following factors.

  • Genetic predisposition: The condition clusters in families.
  • Sex hormones: Women appear to be more susceptible, especially during times of hormonal fluctuations such as pregnancy or menopause.
  • Age: While anyone can develop fibromyalgia, it’s most often diagnosed during the childbearing years.
  • Stress levels: The onset of some cases occurs during or after periods of heightened stress.

Other chronic pain conditions may be a cause of fibromyalgia. Research suggests the constant bombardment of pain signals may change the way the brain processes them and lead to central sensitization.

Diagnosis

No blood or imaging test can diagnose fibromyalgia. Doctors diagnose it in one of two ways.

  • Tender-point exam: Pressure is placed on 18 points around the body to gauge widespread pain and heightened pain response.
  • Widespread pain index and symptom severity scale: Two questionnaires assess the level and nature of pain and other symptoms. (This is the newer and preferred method.)

Your doctor will also likely order blood tests and possibly imaging tests to rule out other conditions.

Treatment

Fibromyalgia treatment should be tailored to your specific symptoms and their severity as well as known symptom triggers. A typical treatment regimen involves:

Other Major Chronic Pain Conditions

Many chronic pain conditions are better known than the ones above. In some cases (rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis), that’s because they’re more disabling. In other cases, it’s due to how long they’ve been recognized or to the successful efforts of advocacy groups.

Some of these major chronic pain conditions include the following.

Those conditions, combined, impact an estimated 40 million or more people.

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