New Screening Tool May Predict Chronic Pain Before It Starts

Faculty Headshot for Timothy Brown

Professor Timothy Brown

How often do you seek comfort through praying or meditating? The answer to this question—along with 16 other questions that are part of a questionnaire developed by researchers at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health—will predict the onset of chronic pain from conditions such as migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and low back pain before these painful conditions even start.

“This is a screening tool for both researchers and clinicians to determine who is likely  to develop chronic pain,” said Timothy T. Brown, a health economics professor at Berkeley Public Health and study co-author.

The study,  published in the Journal PLOS ONE in August 2020, combined risk factors such as childhood traumas, personality traits, life problems, and various clinical factors to predict the onset of chronic pain within seven to ten years. The questionnaire can  help clinicians determine which of their patients are at high risk for developing chronic pain so that they can develop preventive treatments.

In 2010, more than one third of American adults were afflicted with chronic pain. This number is expected to increase as the US population ages. Chronic pain comes with a considerable economic burden to both individuals and society at an estimated cost of $560–$635 billion a year in the US, exceeding the costs of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined.

It’s challenging to determine which risk factors most effectively predict the onset of chronic pain. To determine these risk factors, researchers studied a dataset of middle-aged individuals from 35 to 83 years old over a seven-year period, coming from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States. They used a machine learning approach to select which risk factor measures were most predictive and transformed them into a final questionnaire with 17 questions. Individuals with higher scores have a higher likelihood of experiencing chronic pain in the future.

“This is the first study that can predict who will develop chronic pain up to a decade before chronic pain occurs” said Brown.