What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is commonly defined as pain lasting more than 3-6 months, but a more useful definition may be pain that persists longer than expected for an injury to heal.

Acute pain is a form of pain that usually lasts a relatively short period of time and is the direct result of some kind of injury with tissue damage, say for example a bruised finger that got caught in the car door. This type of pain progressively resolves as the injured body part heals.

While acute pain is a normal and adaptive phenomenon that alerts us to possible injury, chronic pain is very different and becomes maladaptive. Chronic pain may arise from an initial injury, or there may be an ongoing cause, such as illness. However, there may also be no clear cause. Other health problems, such as fatigue, sleep disturbance, decreased appetite and mood changes, often accompany chronic pain. Chronic pain may limit a person's movements, which can reduce flexibility, strength and stamina. This difficulty in carrying out important and enjoyable activities can lead to disability and despair.

Chronic pain is different than cancer pain

Cancer pain is different from other types of chronic pain in several ways. The Pain Project is designed for those suffering from chronic (non-cancer) pain. Pain associated with cancer can be due to many different causes and requires the care of skilled practitioners to assure cancer patients receive appropriate and compassionate pain control.

Chronic pain, depression, and anxiety

Pain is partially an emotional experience and is also very subjective, therefore the correlation between pain and actual bodily damage varies widely. While these two points are widely acknowledged by pain experts, they are still underappreciated by many general healthcare providers, and in general, people tend to view pain as a purely sensory experience representing underlying tissue damage. As a result, there are major gaps in our understanding of persistent pain and how most patients are assessed and treated.

Studies have revealed high rates of suicidal ideation in patients suffering from chronic pain. From 1999 to 2006, Warner, et al reported a tripling of opioid related fatal poisonings (4,000 to 13,800 deaths respectively).1,2

The Scope of our Pain Problem

Chronic pain causes an unparalleled amount of suffering and financial burden for people and their families. Pain robs people of their sense of wellbeing, their ability to earn a living and fundamentally their ability to enjoy life and fulfill their dreams. Chronic pain impacts about 100 million adults in the U.S., more than those affected by heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined. The financial burden of pain in terms of medical treatment and lost productivity is enormous—up to $635 billion each year.

The prevalence of chronic pain is alarming. In the U.S., it is estimated that 37% of adults live with things like continuous knee pain, shoulder pain or hip pain that affects their lives.

  • 28% are living with low back pain, 16% experience regular headaches and 15% have chronic neck pain.
  • The current approach to pain management in the U.S. has inadvertently spawned an entirely new and lethal public health crisis related to opioid pain medications.3


  1. Warner M, Chen LH, Makuc DM. Increase in fatal poisonings involving opioid analgesics in the United States, 1999–2006. NCHS Brief. 2009;22:1–7. [PubMed].
  2. 1994 IASP Press (Reprinted 2002) International Association for the Study of Pain.