Chronic Pain in Midlife Could Have Health Repercussions for Decades

chronic pain and poor health outcomes
Chronic Pain Can Lead to Poor Health OutcomesThomas Barwick - Getty Images
  • New research published in the journal PLOS ONE found an association between midlife chronic pain and poor sleep, mental health struggles, and unemployment.

  • Experts suggest seeing a doctor as soon as you experience lasting pain, before it turns chronic.

  • Keeping activity levels up, working out with friends, good sleep habits, and stress management can also help you avoid chronic pain.

Pain lasting at least three months is categorized as chronic, and it’s a widespread problem—according to one estimate, more than 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. Not only can this type of issue create short-term difficulties with mobility and emotional health, but a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE suggests it may have long-term effects even decades later.

To reach that conclusion, researchers looked at about 12,000 people enrolled in an ongoing U.K.-based study that started in 1958 and has been collecting health and lifestyle data ever since. The study follows individuals all born during the same week in England, Scotland, and Wales.

Researchers assessed pain data for 2003, when participants were 44 years old, and then looked at pain levels in 2008, 2013, and 2021. About two-fifths of participants reported chronic pain when they were in their 40s, and 84 percent of those still had severe pain five years later.

Chronic pain, but not short-term pain, was associated with poor sleep, mental health struggles, and joblessness in the 2013 numbers. Additionally, they found higher incidence of COVID in 2021 among those who had pain at mid-life.

“The takeaway is that chronic pain is associated with broader health vulnerabilities that can persist through decades,” study co-author Alex Bryson, Ph.D., researcher at University College London told Bicycling. “This is a major reason to take chronic pain seriously, especially because it has a range of outcomes for people, including life expectancy.”

For example, those with pain at age 44 reported more problems falling asleep and staying asleep when they were 50 years old. The problem there: A wealth of research has linked sleep issues like these with difficulties in brain function and higher health risks, like developing cardiovascular disease. Poor sleep can also worsen pain, which means those with chronic pain can be in an even more difficult position.

Although chronic pain treatment will depend on the root cause for each individual, there are some prevention steps that can be helpful, such as reducing stress, improving sleep habits, and most of all, staying consistent with getting enough activity, according to Medhat Mikhael, M.D., pain management specialist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.

“What’s particularly powerful is to join a group of friends for your exercise because not only does that give you the benefits of activity, but you'll also get the advantage of social time, which tends to be an under-appreciated aspect of pain management,” he told Bicycling. “Making sure to challenge yourself in a gradual way is another plus when it comes to prevention.”

Also, if you already have some pain and it’s been lingering for a few weeks, don’t hesitate to see your doctor, he said. Catching pain early before it becomes chronic can be a significant step toward making it a short-term issue rather than a long-term problem.

Finally, as another recent study revealed, pairing physical therapy with cognitive behavioral therapy (a form of mental health therapy) can also help with chronic pain—the research looked particularly at back pain. That study also said a more tailored approach, rather than a general program, is best for dealing with chronic pain.

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