Chronic pain affects 29 percent of Australians, which means that at any given time nearly three out of ten people are suffering in some way (Stollznow Research for Pfizer Australia, 2010). When we add the emotional, physical, and financial challenges of the people who care for them, the percentage of lives touched by chronic pain is much higher.?To get a handle on this concept, let’s look at the definition of “chronic pain”, and what some of the salient statistics about it are.

Definition of Chronic Pain

If you were to injure yourself or have an accident, at what stage would you deem that you had “chronic” pain? Some people define it as pain that goes on three to six months without letting up. One in five Australians believes that chronic pain is simply intense pain, yet the actual meaning of the term relates to duration, not quality.?Some countries use the phrase “long-term” instead of “chronic” to differentiate it from intense, short-term pain (usually called “acute”). This is an important distinction to make, because the methods for managing long-term pain can be different to managing intense, short term pain (Pfizer Health Report, 2011).

Some definitions focus on sensations and emotions, defining pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage” (Merskey & Bogduk, 1994). For the definition of chronic pain we can use the Chronic Pain Australia definition: “Chronic pain is defined as pain that extends beyond the expected healing time of an injury, or can accompany chronic illnesses such as arthritis or lupus” (Pfizer Health Report, 2011; Stollznow Research for Pfizer Australia, 2010).

Snapshot Statistics on Chronic Pain

In the U.S.

Chronic pain has been said to be the most costly health problem in the United States, where estimated annual costs total around $100 billion. Some of the component facts that comprise that statistic are:

  • Low back pain. A significant health problem, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. says that 70 — 85 percent of all people have back pain at some time in their life, and it is the most frequent cause of activity limitation in those under 45.
  • Cancer pain affects most people in intermediate and advanced stages of cancer; about 1.4 million new cancer cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S.
  • Arthritis pain affects nearly 66 million Americans each year (Stanford Hospital and Clinics, 2009).

In Australia

A 2007 report by Access Economics estimates the total cost of chronic pain in this country at $34.3 billion, which equates to $10, 847 per person with chronic pain; this estimate is expected to increase over time. It breaks down to:

  • 34% ($11.7 billion) in lost productivity
  • 34% ($11.5 billion) attributed to the burden of disease
  • 20% ($7 billion) of health system costs, including hospital and medical costs as well as pharmaceuticals, other professional services and residential aged care (Access Economics, 2007).

In addition:

  • An estimated 8.7% of people with chronic pain said that their pain problem had involved claims for damages or a legal case (Access Economics, 2007).
  • Twenty percent of people with chronic pain receive worker’s compensation payments (Stollznow Research for Pfizer Australia, 2010).
  • Lost productivity is traditionally counted as days off work, and these total about 9.9 million from chronic pain in Australia. But increasingly employers are recognising that “presenteeism” — reduced productivity while at work — are impacting on the bottom line as well, accounting for $1.4 billion per year. Adding presenteeism to absenteeism, we get about 36.5 million lost workdays per year in Australia, costing employers $5.1 billion (Access Economics, 2007, p24).

When Chronic Pain Australia launched an online survey for those living with chronic pain, there were nearly 600 respondents (n =587). Of those, nearly 93 percent (n=543) were between the ages of 20 and 65, indicating a sample of the population which would normally be participating in the workforce. The geographic distribution showed that over 51 percent (n=300, or 51.1%) lived in either New South Wales or A.C.T., while less than 1 percent came from the Northern Territory and Tasmania (n=3 and n=2, respectively).

In terms of duration of pain, most of the respondents had had pain for over five years. Sixty seven percent (n=395) had had pain for five years or more, while 44 percent (n=260) had had pain for over 10 years. The frequency of pain was also rated by respondents, with “1” indicating that they rarely had pain and “10” indicating constant pain.

For this scale, 97.4 percent (n=572) recorded their frequency at “5” or above, with 44 percent of respondents nominating a frequency of “10”. Thus, greater than 40 percent of respondents experienced constant pain (Nielsen, Copleston, & Wales, 2009).


  • Access Economics. (2007). The high price of pain: The economic impact of persistent pain in Australia, November, 2007. Access Economics Pty., Ltd, for MBF Foundation in collaboration with University of Sydney Pain Management Research Institute.
  • Merskey, H., & Bogduk, N. (Eds.) (1994). Classification of chronic pain: Description of chronic pain syndromes and definition of pain terms. Seattle: IASP Press.
  • Nielsen, A., Copleston, P., & Wales, C. (2009). Pain is not invisible project. Chronic Pain Australia.
  • Pfizer Health Report. (2011). Australians living with chronic pain. Pfizer Health Report, 46, p 4.
  • Stanford Hospital and Clinics. (2009). Chronic pain. Stanford Hospital and Clinics. Retrieved on 21 May, 2013, from: hyperlink.
  • Stollznow Research for Pfizer Australia. (2010). Chronic pain. Stollznow Research for Pfizer Australia. Australia: Pfizer Australia Pty Ltd.

This article is an extract of the upcoming “Managing Chronic Pain” CPD course. The purpose of this course is to give you, a counsellor, psychologist, or psychotherapist, a basic understanding of chronic pain, and how to help manage it, whether your client is an individual suffering from it or a caregiver supporting someone who does.

Click here for more information.