Nine big hospitals in the UK have closed their waiting lists to patients suffering from chronic pain within the past year because they cannot cope with the demand.

Five of the hospitals, including Addenbrooke's in Cambridge and the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, are currently refusing new patients referred by GPs, to keep down their waiting times, according to Dr Foster, an independent research organisation.

Its findings were issued as the Department of Health revealed that the total NHS waiting list had risen above one million less than a month after it fell below seven figures for the first time in a decade.

The Dr Foster survey, run with the Pain Society, shows the care provided round the country for people suffering severe persistent pain is patchy and under-resourced.

Beverley Collett, president of the Pain Society and consultant in pain management and anaesthesia, University Hospitals of Leicester, said: "This report highlights the highly variable provision of specialist services and shows how essential it is that the Government sets standards for pain management."

Graham Archard, the chairman of the Royal College of GPs' primary care pain management group, said: "It is time to develop practical measures that improve the management of pain thus reducing what may be the greatest economic health burden to society and the NHS."

Up to 16 million people in Britain are estimated to suffer from chronic pain such as backache and more than 200 million working days were lost in 1999-2000. But funding for pain services varies hugely, ranging from one consultant seeing 250 patients a year to 50 staff treating 3,500 a year, the equivalent of one to 70.

Chris Pendry, 48, a former lorry driver, injured his back more than 20 years ago. "I was turning myself into a vegetable because I was so frightened of the pain," he said. "I couldn't even walk. I didn't want anyone around me as people weren't believing the pain I was suffering."

In 1989 he was bedridden for nine months and referred to St Thomas' Hospital, London, but his condition was not thought bad enough for pain clinic treatment. After moving to Swindon, he was referred to a pain clinic in his local hospital. "The clinic turned my life around. Before, everything had to be done in moderation. Now, I can push much harder." He was prescribed strong opioids including morphine and helped to get a powertrike, which enabled him to leave his house.

Evidence shows that pain management programmes have the biggest impact in alleviating chronic pain but only 58 per cent of clinics in the survey offer them. The survey of 214 hospitals in the UK received responses from 157.