Pain and ethnicity in the United States: A systematic review

J Palliat Med. 2006 Dec;9(6):1454-73. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1454.


Background: Evidence suggests that racial and ethnic disparities exist in access to effective pain treatment.

Purpose: To review evidence of these disparities and provide recommendations for care and further research.

Design: Systematic review.

Methods: We conducted a MEDLINE search using the MeSH terms of ethnic groups, minority groups, pain, analgesia, and analgesics. We included studies describing current practice patterns, utilization of available treatments, treatment outcomes, and patient and provider knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.

Results: Our search identified 35 journal articles describing the effect of patient race and ethnicity on pain assessment and management. Three studies on pain assessment revealed that minority patients are more likely to have their pain underestimated by providers and less likely to have pain scores documented in the medical record compared to whites. Eleven of 17 studies found that African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to receive opioid analgesics and more likely to have their pain untreated compared to white patients. Three studies revealed that minority patients are more likely to have negative pain management index (PMI) scores-undertreated pain-compared to whites. Patient-related, provider-related, and pharmacy-related barriers to effective pain management were identified.

Conclusion: The majority of studies reveal racial and ethnic disparities in access to effective pain treatment akin to disparities found in other medical services. Quality improvement initiatives that improve treatment of pain for all patients according to established guidelines should decrease disparities by race or ethnicity. Educational interventions should aim to improve patient-provider communication regarding pain and its treatment and should provide support around substance abuse issues. Further research is needed to examine pain treatment outcomes and to determine whether health care system factors lead to these disparities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Ethnic Groups*
  • Humans
  • Pain*
  • United States