Young adults, ages 18-34, are more likely to report experiencing chronic pain compared to older adults (65% vs. 52% ages 35+), with a large majority of them (73%) saying they are in pain every day, according to a new survey conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of the Samueli Foundation. More than one in five young adults who experience chronic pain (22%) say they use cannabis and/or CBD oil for pain, and they are twice as likely to do so compared to those ages 45+ (11%).
"The prevalence of persistent pain among young adults is alarming, and their use of cannabis or CBD oil indicates they are seeking more ways to manage their pain through self-care," said Wayne Jonas, MD, executive director of Integrative Health Programs at Samueli Foundation. "We know cannabis and CBD can be effective in treating pain that stems from various conditions, such as cancer. But there's insufficient evidence to support the effectiveness of CBD and cannabis in treating common chronic pain conditions. Instead, young people should be working with their physicians to first try non-drug treatments that are recommended by the medical community, such as massage therapy, yoga, physical therapy, and exercise."
Young adults with chronic pain – most commonly experienced in their back (32%), neck and knees (20% each) – are looking for help from health care providers to manage their pain, according to the online survey conducted in September of more than 2,000 U.S. adults. Nearly 3 in 10 young adults with chronic pain (29%) say they are talking to their doctors more often about their pain since the pandemic began, compared to just 15% of those age 45 and older. However, three-quarters of young adults (75%) also say they don't know what kind of health care provider can best help them manage their pain.
"It's clear that young people are trying to deal with their chronic pain on their own, but they also want and need their providers' help in determining the most effective treatments for their pain," said Jonas. "And primary care providers, who manage most patients with pain, should steer their patients – especially young adults – to proven, effective strategies to manage their everyday pain."
Seventy-eight percent of adults with chronic pain use non-drug treatments, while 70% use pharmacological treatments. The most common approaches are over-the-counter pain relievers (53%), followed by exercise (43%), heat/ice (34%), healthy eating (26%), cannabis/CBD (16%), physical therapy (15%), massage therapy (15%), and yoga (14%). Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, two-thirds of those with chronic pain (66%) say they have changed their pain management. Some people are now using over-the-counter medications (37%), exercising (35%), and healthy eating (25%) to manage their pain more often than they did before the pandemic.
Large majorities of Americans experiencing chronic pain are interested in using non-drug treatments. Among those not currently using these treatments, 80% are interested in trying healthy eating; 71% in exercise; and more than 3 in 5 would be interested in trying massage therapy (68%), physical therapy (62%), or mindfulness-based stress reduction or meditation (61%).
Quality of life for Americans with chronic pain is likely also suffering, and the majority would like more help and guidance to manage their pain. More than 4 in 5 Americans experiencing chronic pain (83%) say their quality of life would greatly improve if they were better able to manage it, and 79% of Americans with chronic pain say they wish it was taken more seriously by health care providers. Additionally, 68% wish they had more information about how to manage their chronic pain.
"This should be a wake-up call to physicians that their patients are looking for more information from them about managing their chronic pain, especially for non-drug approaches." said Jonas. "It's up to providers across the health care system to engage in regular conversations with patients to uncover the best ways to manage their pain on a daily basis."