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NIH Study Broadens Understanding of High Impact Chronic Pain in the United States

Researchers have demonstrated that disability is as likely in the chronic pain population as it is in those with kidney failure, emphysema, or stroke. This is the reality for 11 million U.S. adults with high impact chronic pain (HICP), a new concept that describes those with pain lasting three months or longer and accompanied by at least one major activity restriction. These findings directly address recommendations suggested in the National Pain Strategy by more accurately characterizing the HICP population to further understanding of chronic pain. This study—conducted by scientists at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) at the National Institutes of Health as well as the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle—was published in the Journal of Pain.

"The multidimensional nature of chronic pain is not reflected in commonly used operational definitions based solely on pain duration, resulting in inordinately high prevalence estimates that limit our ability to effectively address chronic pain on a national level," says Mark Pitcher, PhD, visiting fellow in the division of intramural research at NCCIH and an author of the study.

Among the study's top findings was the revelation that pain-related disability identifies a substantial portion of the chronic pain population experiencing progressive deterioration in mental and physical health outcomes along with substantially higher health care usage. Together, the HICP population constitutes some 4.8% of the U.S. adult population. About 83% of people with HICP were unable to work for a living, and one-third had difficulty with self-care activities such as washing themselves and getting dressed.

"By differentiating those with HICP, a condition that is associated with higher levels of anxiety, depression, fatigue, and cognitive difficulty, we hope to improve clinical research and practice," says M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, scientific director in the NCCIH Division of Intramural Research and an author of the study.

The concept of HICP was first proposed by the National Pain Strategy to better identify those with significant levels of life interference. While prior epidemiological surveys have assessed the impact of pain using questions that ask how much pain interferes with life activities, it is likely that individuals with severe pain may have had difficulty distinguishing the increased effort required to carry out important life activities. As such, this study used an alternative approach to untether the pain experience from its impact. Activity limitations and participation restrictions were assessed using general disability questions without reference to pain experience.

"It is crucial that we fully understand how people's lives are affected by chronic pain. It will help improve care for individuals living with chronic pain and strategically guide our research programs that aim to reduce the burden of pain at the population level," says Linda Porter, PhD, director of the Office of Pain Policy at NINDS. "The findings from this study are a strong step toward these goals."

The study employed nationally representative data from the 2011 National Health Interview Survey to assess the prevalence, psychosocial characteristics, health status, and health care usage of the chronic pain population. The study also determined the degree of contribution made by other chronic health conditions to activity limitations and participation restrictions. Statistical analyses were performed on merged datasets that represented a weighted population size of approximately 220.3 million noninstitutionalized adults.

This study ultimately highlights the role of pain-related disability as a key indicator of pain impact. Its findings not only serve to refine clinical research and streamline treatment, they also provide much-needed information to policymakers. As such, the results are relevant to researchers, health care professionals, and legislators interested in shaping policy around a global health issue.

Source: National Institutes of Health