Veterans Experience More Pain Than General Population

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Rates of severe pain were significantly higher in veterans with back and jaw pain, severe headaches or migraine, and neck pain.

United States veterans experience a much higher prevalence of severe pain than the general population, with young and middle-aged veterans affected the most, according to an analysis of the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) published in the Journal of Pain.1

Richard L. Nahin, PhD, lead epidemiologist at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and colleagues analyzed data from 67,696 adults (6647 veterans and 61,049 non-veterans) who completed the Adult Functioning and Disability (AFD) Supplement of the NHIS between 2010 and 2014, and identified those with severe pain. A majority of the veterans were men (92.5%), and 56.5% of non-veterans were women.

The researchers found that:

  • 65.5% of veterans and 56.4% of non-veterans reported experiencing pain in the last 3 months, with 9.1% of veterans and 6.3% of non-veterans reporting severe pain in the last 3 months.
  • Significantly more veterans aged 18 to 39 reported severe pain (7.8%) compared with age-matched non-veterans (3.2%); however, veterans aged 70 or older were less likely to report severe pain (7.1%) compared with non-veterans (9.6%).
  • As non-veterans’ ages increased, their prevalence of any pain or severe pain also increased. However, veterans aged 50 to 59 were most likely to have severe pain, while the youngest and oldest groups of veterans were least likely to report severe pain.
  • Male veterans were more likely to report pain (9.0%) compared with male non-veterans (4.7%). No significant difference was seen between the 2 groups of women.
  • Veterans were more likely than non-veterans to have any back pain (32.8%), back pain with or without sciatica (12.2%, 20.5%), or joint pain (43.6%), but were less likely than non-veterans to have jaw pain (3.6%) or migraines (10.0%).
  • Rates of severe pain were significantly higher in veterans with back pain (21.6%), jaw pain (37.5%), severe headaches or migraine (26.4%), and neck pain (27.7%) compared with non-veterans with these same conditions.

“These findings show that we still have much more to do to help our veterans who are suffering from pain,” said Josephine P. Briggs, MD, director of the NCCIH, in a statement.2 “This new knowledge can help inform effective health care strategies for veterans of all ages.”

Dr Briggs added that more research is necessary to find more evidence-based options to help veterans manage pain, and that over time, this research may assist non-veterans as well.


  1. Nahin RL. Severe pain in veterans: the impact of age and sex, and comparisons to the general population. J Pain. 2016; doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2016.10.021.
  2. Veterans endure higher pain severity than nonveterans [news release]. NIH newsroom; Available at: Accessed December 14, 2016.