An Introduction to 20 Common Chronic Pain Disorders

Learn About the Most Common Conditions Associated with Chronic Pain

Many people suffer from back pain.
Many people suffer from back pain.. CRISTINA PEDRAZZINI/Getty Images

Chronic pain affects as many as one in 10 adults. It can be caused by a number of things, though the most common conditions associated with chronic pain are back injuries, headaches, and joint pain. Chronic pain can also be caused by diseases or disorders, such as fibromyalgia and nerve damage. Here are some of the most prevalent chronic pain conditions.

Chronic Back Pain

Back pain affects eight out of 10 people at some point in their lives.

It can be caused by an injury, or it can develop with age. Back injuries are an epidemic in the workplace, and are one of the leading causes of disability. Common sources of chronic back pain include:

  • Slipped or bulging discs. These are often the result of twisting or lifting injuries. Damaged discs protrude into the spinal canal, pressing against nerves as they exit the spinal cord.
  • Spinal stenosis. This is the term for narrowing of the spinal canal, which can compress nerves.
  • Compression fractures. Commonly associated with osteoporosis, these fractures occur when brittle vertebral bones collapse.
  • Soft tissue damage. Heavy lifting or trauma can cause damage to back muscles, ligaments and tendons.
  • Traumatic fractures. Falls from elevation, car accidents or crush injuries can cause painful vertebral fractures.
  • Structural deformities. Spinal abnormalities, such as scoliosis, kyphosis or lordosis put strain on the muscles that control posture, causing pain and fatigue.

    Chronic Headaches

    Headaches are one of the most common types of chronic pain reported by Americans. A headache is considered chronic if it happens for three months in a row, for at least 15 days out of each month.

    The most common types of chronic headaches are:

    • Muscle tension headaches. Often caused by stress, fatigue or “sleeping wrong,” muscles of the neck, shoulders and scalp tighten. This causes pressure on the head, leading to pain.
    • Eye strain headaches. Ocular muscles become fatigued and cause head pain. This is usually caused by sitting at a computer for too long, or wearing the wrong eyeglass prescription.
    • Migraines. Migraines can be caused by nervous system triggers or hormonal changes in the body. They often cause pain on one side of the head or face, and may be accompanied by sensitivities to light, sounds or smells.
    • Cluster headaches. Often confused with migraines, these severe headaches are usually caused by enlarged blood vessels leading into the head.

    Chronic headaches may also be present with diseases such as MS, cancer, brain injuries, HIV and high blood pressure. They can be caused by the disease process itself, or may be unpleasant side effects of medications.

    Chronic Joint Pain

    Joint pain is one of the leading types of chronic pain reported by Americans. Arthritis is the most common type of joint pain; however, joint pain is not only felt by the elderly. Depending on its source, chronic joint pain can begin at any age.

    The common types of joint pain include:

    • Osteoarthritis. OA is the term for wear and tear on joints over time. It is common in the elderly, and usually affects one or more of the larger joints in the body.
    • Rheumatoid arthritis. Often present in early adulthood, RA causes swelling in the joint spaces. Eventually it also damages bones, ligaments and tendons.
    • Repetitive strain injury. Common in athletes, frequent injuries over time can result in chronic pain. Typically, these involve larger joints, like the knee or the shoulder.

    Neuropathic (Nerve) Pain

    Nerves that carry pain signals to the brain may be triggered by swelling, compression or damage. Nerves that are healing may also over-fire, causing sensations such as pain to be more intense.

    Some examples of neuropathic pain are:

    • Sciatica. The sciatic nerve runs from your back to your feet. Compression or damage of this nerve often causes pain to shoot down the leg on one side of the body.
    • Bulging or slipped discs. Nerve compression in the spinal cord can cause local pain, or pain referred elsewhere along the nerve’s path.
    • Diabetic neuropathy. Sensory nerve damage is a common side effect of diabetes. It can cause numbness or pain, most often in the hands or feet.
    • Carpal tunnel syndrome. Swelling in the wrist tunnel irritates the median nerve. CTS causes tingling, numbness and pain over the thumb, first and middle fingers.

    Chronic neuropathic pain can also be present in disorders of the nervous system such as MS, spinal cord injury and stroke.

    Other Diseases and Illnesses that Cause Chronic Pain

    • Fibromyalgia. Though the exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, its effects can be devastating. It causes widespread muscle fatigue and pain, and is often accompanied by chronic fatigue, sleep disorders and irritable bowel syndrome.
    • Cancer. Cancer pain can be caused by tumors or lacerations to tissues or nerves. Pain is also a common side effect of many cancer drugs, such as those used for chemotherapy and radiation.
    • Depression While depression is commonly thought of as a psychiatric disorder, it is often accompanied by unrelenting pain. In fact, many drugs used to treat depression today are also effective at treating the physical symptoms of this disease.


    Health, United States, 2007. Centers for Disease Control. Accessed December 5, 2008.

    Back Pain. National Institutes of Health. Accessed December 5, 2008.

    Cancer Pain: Treatment Guidelines for Patients. American Cancer Society, National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Accessed December 5, 2008.

    Meadows, Michelle. “Managing Chronic Pain”. FDA Consumer Magazine. March-April 2004. Pub No. FDA 04-1336C.

    Continue Reading