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Poll: Nearly 1 in 5 Americans Says Pain Often Interferes With Daily Life

According to the latest NPR-IBM Watson Health Poll exercise, including stretching and yoga, is popular among younger people as a way to relieve pain.
Daniel Grill Getty Images/Tetra images RF
According to the latest NPR-IBM Watson Health Poll exercise, including stretching and yoga, is popular among younger people as a way to relieve pain.

At some point nearly everyone has to deal with pain.

How do Americans experience and cope with pain that makes everyday life harder? We asked in the latest NPR-IBM Watson Health Poll.

First, we wanted to know how often pain interferes with people's ability to work, go to school or engage in other activities. Overall, 18% of Americans say that's often a problem for them. Almost a quarter – 24% — say it's sometimes the case.


The degree to which pain is a problem varies by age, with 22% of people 65 and older saying pain interferes often with their daily lives compared with only about 9% of people 35 and younger.

Once pain strikes, how do people deal with it?

The poll found that 63% of people had sought care for their pain and 37% hadn't. Younger people were less likely to have pursued care.

The most common approach is an over-the-counter pain reliever. Sixty percent of people said that is something they do. Another popular choice, particularly among younger people, is exercise, including stretching and yoga. Forty percent of those under 35 say exercise is a way they seek relief. Only 11% of people 65 and older say exercise is something they try for pain. Overall, 26% of people see exercise as helpful for their pain.

That level of exercise is "really exciting to see," says Brett Snodgrass, a nurse practitioner and clinical coordinator of palliative medicine at Baptist Hospitals in Memphis, Tenn. In her experience, not nearly as many people were doing that, even a few years ago.


She says a decline in opioid prescribing could be part of the reason for the change. "Often prescribers were settling for prescriptions," she says of health care providers' longstanding approach. "Now that there's less prescribing, patients are having to take more responsibility" for managing their pain, she says.

But options such as exercise and physical therapy are easier to access for people with higher incomes. Snodgrass points to the poll's finding that only 15% of people whose income was less than $25,000 a year cite exercise as a way they relieve pain. By comparison, about a third of people making $50,000 or more annually say it's one way they deal with it.

About 15% of Americans do turn to a prescription medicine to help get relief. People 35 and under were least likely to get a prescription drug for pain – only 3%. Older people, those 65 and older, were most likely to make use of a prescription medicine, with 23% opting for that approach.

In terms of treatment, pain needs to be viewed holistically, so that reliance on medicines alone doesn't drive decisions. "If we don't pay attention to pain as a public health issue, I think we're going to be addressing half of the problem and causing another problem," says Dr. Anil Jain, vice president and chief health information officer at IBM Watson Health.

In light of the efforts to reduce opioid use, we asked if people who are taking opioids for pain are concerned about becoming addicted: 16% said yes; 84% said no.

A little more than a third of people taking opioids said they were worried about losing access to opioids compared with about two-thirds who aren't.

The nationwide poll surveyed 3,004 people during the first half of March. The margin of error is +/- 1.8 percentage points.

You can find the full results here.

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