Classifying chronic pain using multidimensional pain-agnostic symptom assessments and clustering analysis

Sci Adv. 2021 Sep 10;7(37):eabj0320. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abj0320. Epub 2021 Sep 8.


Chronic pain conditions present in various forms, yet all feature symptomatic impairments in physical, mental, and social domains. Rather than assessing symptoms as manifestations of illness, we used them to develop a chronic pain classification system. A cohort of real-world treatment-seeking patients completed a multidimensional patient-reported registry as part of a routine initial evaluation in a multidisciplinary academic pain clinic. We applied hierarchical clustering on a training subset of 11,448 patients using nine pain-agnostic symptoms. We then validated a three-cluster solution reflecting a graded scale of severity across all symptoms and eight independent pain-specific measures in additional subsets of 3817 and 1273 patients. Negative affect–related factors were key determinants of cluster assignment. The smallest subset included follow-up assessments that were predicted by baseline cluster assignment. Findings provide a cost-effective classification system that promises to improve clinical care and alleviate suffering by providing putative markers for personalized diagnosis and prognosis.