Everybody Hurts Sometimes… So How Do They Manage?

Painkillers? Exercise? Alcohol? Cannabis? Just living with it? A study of thousands of North Americans sheds light on how people manage pain.


Pain is a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors that millions of people experience daily. Because of this, effective pain treatment, management, and prevention have become a health concern for many countries, including the United States and Canada.

Building upon prior studies, a recent investigation aimed to delve deeper into the treatment practices used by a large sample of the general public in the United States and Canada. Specifically, the investigation focused on the frequency of pain management options and correlations between pain level and management method(s) used.

This study was led by Dr. Anna Zajacova, a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, and published in Innovation of Aging.

The researchers analyzed survey data from over 4,000 respondents aged 18 and over, with roughly half of the respondents from the United States and half from Canada. They found that over-the-counter medication was the most frequently chosen method for pain management (55%), followed by “just live with pain” (41%), and exercise (40%). Meanwhile, 4% of Canadian respondents also reported using alcohol to manage their pain, while this number doubled to 8% for American respondents.

Respondents who reported the highest level of pain were more likely to use alcohol or prescription medication for pain management, while respondents with the lowest level of pain were more likely to use over-the-counter medication or exercise. Notably, participants who subjectively experienced the most pain were seven times more likely to report using alcohol to reduce pain symptoms.

Interestingly, among respondents who shared additional pain management methods in an open-ended survey question, almost one-third mentioned using cannabis. This finding holds significant interest given that previous population-based pain surveys did not incorporate cannabis as an option for pain management, despite extensive evidence demonstrating cannabis efficacy in pain reduction.

When looking at sociodemographic variables and pain, older adults were more likely to use over-the-counter medications and “just live with pain” compared to younger adults. Women were more likely to report using more over-the-counter medications, complimentary or alternative medications, and resting for pain management while men generally reported using alcohol or physical therapy for pain management.

In conclusion, this research provides new insights into how North American adults tackle pain. The study’s findings strongly advocate for addressing and understanding these practices in depth, particularly the implications and consequences associated with maladaptive approaches like alcohol use, urging a broader approach in pain management research and intervention strategies.

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Alexandria (Alex) Samson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She completed her BSc in Neuroscience from Dalhousie University. Alex is a strong believer in open science and is passionate about making scientific research accessible to all audiences.