Abstract This large scale computer-assisted telephone survey was undertaken to explore the prevalence, severity, treatment and impact of chronic pain in 15 European countries and Israel. Screening interviews identified respondents aged ⩾18 years with chronic pain for in-depth interviews. 19% of 46,394 respondents willing to participate (refusal rate 46%) had suffered pain for ⩾6 months, had experienced pain in the last month and several times during the last week. Their pain intensity was ⩾5 on a 10-point Numeric Rating Scale (NRS) (1 = no pain, 10 = worst pain imaginable) during last episode of pain. In-depth interviews with 4839 respondents with chronic pain (about 300 per country) showed: 66% had moderate pain (NRS = 5–7), 34% had severe pain (NRS = 8–10), 46% had constant pain, 54% had intermittent pain. 59% had suffered with pain for two to 15 years, 21% had been diagnosed with depression because of their pain, 61% were less able or unable to work outside the home, 19% had lost their job and 13% had changed jobs because of their pain. 60% visited their doctor about their pain 2–9 times in the last six months. Only 2% were currently treated by a pain management specialist. One-third of the chronic pain sufferers were currently not being treated. Two-thirds used non-medication treatments, e.g,. massage (30%), physical therapy (21%), acupuncture (13%). Almost half were taking non-prescription analgesics; ‘over the counter’ (OTC) NSAIDs (55%), paracetamol (43%), weak opioids (13%). Two-thirds were taking prescription medicines: NSAIDs (44%), weak opioids (23%), paracetamol (18%), COX-2 inhibitors (1–36%), and strong opioids (5%). Forty percent had inadequate management of their pain. Interesting differences between countries were observed, possibly reflecting differences in cultural background and local traditions in managing chronic pain. Conclusions: Chronic pain of moderate to severe intensity occurs in 19% of adult Europeans, seriously affecting the quality of their social and working lives. Very few were managed by pain specialists and nearly half received inadequate pain management. Although differences were observed between the 16 countries, we have documented that chronic pain is a major health care problem in Europe that needs to be taken more seriously.