This research develops and evaluates a simple method of grading the severity of chronic pain for use in general population surveys and studies of primary care pain patients. Measures of pain intensity, disability, persistence and recency of onset were tested for their ability to grade chronic pain severity in a longitudinal study of primary care back pain (n = 1213), headache (n = 779) and temporomandibular disorder pain (n = 397) patients. A Guttman scale analysis showed that pain intensity and disability measures formed a reliable hierarchical scale. Pain intensity measures appeared to scale the lower range of global severity while disability measures appeared to scale the upper range of global severity. Recency of onset and days in pain in the prior 6 months did not scale with pain intensity or disability. Using simple scoring rules, pain severity was graded into 4 hierarchical classes: Grade I, low disability--low intensity; Grade II, low disability--high intensity; Grade III, high disability--moderately limiting; and Grade IV, high disability--severely limiting. For each pain site, Chronic Pain Grade measured at baseline showed a highly statistically significant and monotonically increasing relationship with unemployment rate, pain-related functional limitations, depression, fair to poor self-rated health, frequent use of opioid analgesics, and frequent pain-related doctor visits both at baseline and at 1-year follow-up. Days in Pain was related to these variables, but not as strongly as Chronic Pain Grade. Recent onset cases (first onset within the prior 3 months) did not show differences in psychological and behavioral dysfunction when compared to persons with less recent onset. Using longitudinal data from a population-based study (n = 803), Chronic Pain Grade at baseline predicted the presence of pain in the prior 2 weeks. Chronic Pain Grade and pain-related functional limitations at 3-year follow-up. Grading chronic pain as a function of pain intensity and pain-related disability may be useful when a brief ordinal measure of global pain severity is required. Pain persistence, measured by days in pain in a fixed time period, provides useful additional information.