Chronic pain is much more common among poor, less educated older Americans than their wealthier, more educated peers, a new study suggests.
“I found that people with lower levels of education and wealth don’t just have more pain, they also have more severe pain,” said study author Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk. She’s an assistant professor of sociology from the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y.
“I also looked at pain-related disability, meaning that pain is interfering with the ability to do normal work or household activities. And again, people with less wealth and education are more likely to experience this disability,” she added in a university news release.
In the analysis of 12 years of data from more than 19,000 people aged 51 and older, those with the least education were 80 percent more likely to have chronic pain than those with the most education.
People who didn’t finish high school were 370 percent more likely to have severe chronic pain than those with graduate degrees, the study found.
“If you’re looking at all pain — mild, moderate and severe combined — you do see a difference across socioeconomic groups,” Grol-Prokopczyk said. “And other studies have shown that.
“But if you look at the most severe pain, which happens to be the pain most associated with disability and death, then the socioeconomically disadvantaged are much, much more likely to experience it,” she said.
Grol-Prokopczyk said further research is needed to learn why chronic pain is much more common among poor and less educated older Americans. The findings are also important when discussing the opioid painkiller abuse epidemic in the United States, she added.
“There are a lot of pressures right now to reduce opioid prescription. In part, this study should be a reminder that many people are legitimately suffering from pain. Health care providers shouldn’t assume that someone who shows up in their office complaining of pain is just trying to get an opioid prescription,” Grol-Prokopczyk said.
The study, which was published recently in the journal Pain, also highlights the need for research on new treatments.
“We don’t have particularly good treatments for chronic pain,” Grol-Prokopczyk said. “If opioids are to some extent being taken off the table, it becomes even more important to find other ways of addressing this big public health problem.”
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more on chronic pain.