Growing numbers of young adults are suffering from chronic pain that seriously affects their lives, with the rise blamed on obesity, sedentary lifestyles and stresses faced by that age group.
A new report on the prevalence of chronic pain in England has found that the number of people beset with it remained steady between 2011 and 2017 at about 15.5 million. Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts more than 12 weeks despite treatment or medication. Most sufferers have arthritis or musculoskeletal conditions, such as gout and ankylosing spondylitis.
But the proportion of people aged 16 to 34 affected by what experts call high-impact chronic pain – pain so acute that it leaves them struggling to work, interact socially and look after themselves independently – rose dramatically over that time from 21% to 34%.
“Since 2011 there appears to have been an alarming increase in high-impact chronic pain among young adults, which could change the life chances of a generation,” said Prof John Newton, Public Health England’s (PHE) director of health improvement, who helped produce the report.
Between 2011 and 2017 there were rises in high-impact chronic pain of 2% among 35- to 44-year-olds and 45- to 54-year-olds and of 5% among those aged 55 to 64. But 16- to 34-year-olds were the only age group to experience such a pronounced increase in prevalence of the disabling condition.
The findings are based on an analysis by PHE and the charity Versus Arthritis of data about population health collected by NHS Digital for the health survey for England in 2017. It is contained in a new report by the charity, called “Unfair, unequal and unseen: chronic pain in England”.
“It is deeply alarming to see such a significant increase in high-impact chronic pain in young adults, not seen in any other age group,” said Ellen Miller, Versus Arthritis’s acting chief executive.
Life experiences such as deprivation, social exclusion and being in a marginalised group often strongly influenced whether someone suffered serious pain for a prolonged period, she said.
Addressing the increase in young adults, Miller said: “But there could be other reasons, like falling levels of physical activity, rising obesity, or adverse socioeconomic trends over the last decade. Could stresses around work or worries about fighting to be on the property ladder be impacting young people’s experience of chronic pain?”
Overall 5.5 million people have high-impact chronic pain, the report found. It is generally found in people with osteoarthritis, back and neck pain and fibromyalgia.
The analysis also found that chronic pain has a disproportionate impact on poorer people, those from ethnic minorities and women:
Of sufferers 30% live in deprived areas, whereas just 15% live in the best-off districts.
Black and Asian people are more likely to report having high-impact chronic pain.
More women than men experience high-impact pain.
Writing in a foreword to the report, Newton said long-term reliance on opioid drugs is increasingly recognised as not the best way to treat chronic serious pain and that “promoting physical activity and measures to address levels of obesity could reduce the number of people who experience chronic pain”.
Specialist NHS services that assess and manage patients could help those blighted by chronic pain, but were in very short supply, he said.