Theoretical Medicine

, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp 213-225

First online:

What is chronic pain?

  • John D. LoeserAffiliated withDepartment of Neurological Surgery Multidisciplinary Pain Center, University of Washington School of Medicine

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Chronic pain leads to individual suffering and to major costs for all developed countries. Previous studies suggest that both the incidence of disabling chronic pain and the amount of health care consumption due to chronic pain are rapidly increasing. Western medicine is not only often ineffective but may be one of the causes of this epidemic. This article will address the issue of chronic pain of unknown etiology and has the goals of: (1) identifying the factors which have led to our confusion about this topic, and (2) proposing alternative ways of conceptualizing chronic pain and its ensuing behaviors and social consequences. It is concluded that it is essential to discriminate between tissue damage, pain, suffering, pain behaviors, health care consumption, impairment and disability if one is to develop a meaningful conceptualization of the medical, social, economic and political problems of chronic pain. Successful treatment must be defined in behavioral terms such as restoration of normal activities. Disabling chronic pain is often a sign of overwhelming stress engendered by the individual's failure to cope with the demands of industrialized society.

Key words

behavior epidemiology concepts of pain disability health care consumption impairment nociception pain suffering