Chronic Pain Takes Increasing Toll on U.S. Productivity


By Kathy Gurchiek March 9, 2007

Chronic pain among the nation’s workforce rose nearly 40 percent between 1996 and 2006, according to a national survey of 1,103 full-time U.S. workers and 251 employment benefits managers.

The increase comes as the workforce ages and Americans follow more sedentary lifestyles, says Dr. Rollin Gallagher of the National Pain Foundation and clinical professor and director of the Center for Pain Medicine, Research and Policy of the University of Pennsylvania.

The survey defined chronic pain as lasting at least six months. More than 50 million people in the United States suffer from chronic pain, according to the foundation, which notes low back pain, osteoarthritis pain, cancer-related pain and neuropathic pain as among types of chronic pain.

Chronic pain may be attributable to compression of nerves or damage to the central nervous system, from injury-related to trauma or surgery, or from chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis or cancer, the foundation said. Sometimes the cause is unknown.

Among the findings:

    • 89 percent of full-time employees with chronic pain experienced pain at work.

    • 89 percent of full-time employees with chronic pain typically go to work instead of staying home when in pain.

    • 27 percent more employees missed work five or more days because of chronic pain during 2006 vs. in 1996.

    • 46 percent of employees with chronic pain said the pain often or sometimes affects their ability to perform their job.

    • 65 percent of employers surveyed cited pain-related conditions as a cause of lost productivity.

    • $1.1 billion of lost wages in 2006 was attributable to employees calling in sick due to any pain-related condition.

Wellness component​

Dr. Charles Argoff, director and assistant professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City said he is seeing an increasing number of patients with chronic pain.

“They’re looking for ways to manage their pain, and there are treatments that can help such as diet and exercise, physical therapy, acupuncture and a variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications,” he said in a press release.

What is needed, says the foundation’s Gallagher, are employer wellness programs that include a component about preventing or living with chronic pain.

“This survey indicates that employees with chronic pain must become their own advocates, understand the impact of their chronic pain and work with their health care provider to identify appropriate treatment options,” he said in a press release.

There are more employer wellness programs now—an increase of 65 percent—than there was 10 years ago. More than two-thirds, or 66 percent, of employers surveyed offer worksite wellness programs, compared with 40 percent in 1996. However, only 22 percent of such programs deal with preventing or living with chronic pain conditions, Gallagher noted.

“We have seen some improvement in the recognition of pain-related illness in the workplace, and that should be commended,” he said. “But more U.S. businesses should invest in these wellness programs.

“Once employees are given the tools to better understand and manage their pain successfully, they can begin to improve many areas of their lives affected by their chronic pain.”

The foundation, which says it does not endorse or recommend any specific treatment, procedure or product, sponsored the survey in conjunction with PriCara. PriCara is a unit of Ortho-McNeil Inc., a pharmaceutical company.

Harris Interactive conducted the telephone survey in the United States from Oct. 30 to Dec. 3, 2006. The benefits managers surveyed were at non-headquartered locations with 150 or more employees at the site. The findings update a poll the pharmaceutical company sponsored in 1996.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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