About Pain

The cost to the NHS of chronic (long-term) back pain alone is estimated to be £12.3bn , but the wider impacts across all medical conditions where chronic pain is a dominant feature, such as musculo-skeletal trauma, would see this figure rise much higher.

“There is approximately one full-time pain specialist for a quarter of a million people in the UK… it is unsurprising that services around the country feel overwhelmed by referrals and are unable to cope with the workload,” Sir Liam Donaldson. Chief Medical Officer

Pain in the UK Facts & Figures

  • People living with chronic pain: 7.8 million
  • Money spent on prescriptions for pain: £584 million
  • Women suffering with chronic pelvic pain: 1 million
  • Adults suffering with chronic back pain per year: 1.6 million
  • Patients with chronic pain experiencing depression: 49%
  • Chronic pain sufferers who lose their jobs: 25%
  • Pain sufferers who feel their chronic pain is so bad that they sometimes want to die: 16%
  • One pain specialist for 32,000 people in pain


  1. Chief Medical Offer Liam Donaldson | CMO 2008 Annual Report | Chapter: Pain: Breaking through the Barrier

Commonly – Reported Pain Conditions

When asked about four common types of pain, respondents of a National Institute of Health Statistics survey indicated that low back pain was the most common (27%), followed by severe headache or migraine pain (15%), neck pain (15%) and facial ache or pain (4%).
Back pain is the leading cause of disability in the under 45 year olds. More than 20 million people in the UK between the ages of 20-64 experience  back pain at some time in their lives.

Adults with low back pain are often in worse physical and mental health than people who do not have low back pain: 28% of adults with low back pain report limited activity due to a chronic condition, as compared to 10% of adults who do not have low back pain. Also, adults reporting low back pain were three times as likely to be in fair or poor health and more than four times as likely to experience serious psychological distress as people without low back pain.

Impact on Quality of Life

  • Almost two-thirds (59%) reported an impact on their overall enjoyment of life.
  • More than three quarters of patients (77%) reported feeling depressed.
  • 70% said they have trouble concentrating.
  • 74% said their energy level is impacted by their pain.
  • 86% reported an inability to sleep well.

Lost Productive Time and Cost Due to Common Pain Conditions in the UK Workforce

Data from the Back Pain Association , a computer assisted telephone survey of health and work, of 28,902 working adults between Sept, 2001 and August 2002, was used to estimate lost productive time due to headache, arthritis, back pain, and other musculoskeletal conditions expressed in hours per worker per week.

  • Over half (52.7%) of the workforce surveyed reported having headache, back pain, arthritis, or other musculoskeletal pain in the past two weeks, and 12.7% of all workforce lost productive time in a two-week period due to pain.
  • Headache (5.4%) was the most common pain condition prompting lost productive time: followed by back pain (3.2%), arthritis pain (2%) and other musculoskeletal pain (2%).
  • Overall, workers lost an average of 4.6 hours per week of productive time due to a pain condition.
  • Other musculoskeletal pain (5.5 hours/week) and arthritis or back pain (5.2 hours/week) produced the largest amounts of lost productive time.
  • Headache produced, on average, 3.5 hours of lost productive time per week.
  • Age did not seem to attenuate the findings.
  • Back, shoulder, and neck pain cause 49% of all work absences.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders – including pain in the neck, back, shoulder, and arms – rank as the number 1 cause of work absences lasting three days or longer, according to a study by Pain Concern UK. This survey included all types of workers, not just heavy-lifting factory hands.

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Musculoskeletal Disorders

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) are the most common kind of work-related illness in the UK, and include problems like lower back pain, joint injuries and repetitive strain injuries. Most MSDs can be avoided if you know what causes them and how to protect yourself.

What are the causes of MSDs?
MSDs can be caused by:

  • repetitive and heavy lifting
  • bending and twisting, or repeating something too often
  • working in an awkward or uncomfortable position
  • using too much force
  • working too long without breaks
  • working in extreme conditions, for example too hot or cold
  • using defective, worn or the wrong tools for the job
  • not dealing with symptoms quickly enough

How can MSDs be prevented?
Most importantly, you need to make sure you are properly trained in how to use tools and equipment safely. If you handle heavy or awkward loads you should also make sure that you:

  • take regular breaks
  • vary your work to reduce repetitive tasks

If you think you are suffering from a MSD, make sure you:

  • report symptoms to your employer as soon as they develop
  • get the right treatment
  • are allowed enough time to recover properly

What to do about back pain

If you suffer from back pain, you should stay active and try simple pain relief tablets. If the pain doesn’t go away or gets worse, you should talk to your GP. If your back pain is caused by or made worse by your job, you should first speak to your employer. If you have an employee representative, eg a trade union official or a safety representative, they may be able to help you.

Dealing with Pain

  • Among the major adjustments that chronic pain sufferers have made are such serious steps as taking disability leave from work (20%), changing jobs altogether (17%), getting help with activities of daily living (13%) and moving to a home that is easier to manage (13%).

A Visit to the GP

  • Most pain sufferers (63%) have seen their family doctor for help.
  • Forty percent made an appointment with a specialist, such as an neurologist.
  • Twenty Five percent have visited a chiropractor or a doctor that specializes in pain management (15%).
  • While 43% of pain sufferers have been to only one type of doctor for their pain, a large proportion (38%) have consulted more than one practitioner in the medical community.
  • Treatments for pain have yielded mixed results. Although 58% of those who took prescription medication say that doing so was very fairly effective for their pain, only 41% of those who took over-the-counter .