How Social Distancing May Hurt People With Chronic Pain
How chronic pain patients can manage in the age of COVID-19.
Posted Apr 14, 2020
Our society is in the midst of an unprecedented global public health crisis. As social distancing laws become increasingly more stringent, and government-mandated quarantine becomes our "new normal," the next few months will, undoubtedly, take a toll on all of us—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
With that in mind, there is a specific group of the population that is under-represented in the midst of this pandemic—the 100 million Americans who suffer from debilitating chronic pain. While vastly underappreciated, it's not a medical problem that's going away anytime soon. According to Consumer Reports, prescriptions for pain medication have climbed 300 percent in the past decade.
According to the CDC, chronic pain is the number-one cause of long-term disability in the United States. A very common problem especially seen in older adults, it's often associated with other issues, such as depression, insomnia, social isolation, and poor quality of life. In the age of COVID-19 and social distancing, these individuals are at an even higher risk for getting sick, since the CDC also reports that anyone with "serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19."
So, what does this mean for those diagnosed with chronic pain—an already self-isolating condition that doesn't necessarily impact the lungs, but can still have an adverse effect on overall well-being and lead to a compromised immune system?
Here's what we know for sure. A recent study, "The Impact of Social Isolation on Pain Interference," published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, shows just how devastating loneliness and social distancing can be to individuals diagnosed with chronic pain. The research indicated that "patients with higher social isolation scores reported significantly higher levels of pain interference and significantly lower levels of physical function."
Which means now, more than ever, is a critical time for people struggling with chronic pain on a daily basis. With an uncertain future ahead of us, it's crucial for anyone—whether they struggle with migraines, arthritis, fibromyalgia, or any type of pain—that they double-down on health practices and refrain from letting social isolation worsen their condition.
Stay connected more than ever: In the age of COVID-19, a person who suffers from chronic pain and is already accustomed to self-isolating may find themselves even more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness and helplessness during a time of heightened anxiety and uncertainty. Above anything else, make a promise to yourself to remain connected to family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Take advantage of the increasing popularity of free technology like Zoom, FaceTime, Instagram Live, FacebookWatch, and even emerging video messaging apps, like Marco Polo, which allow loved ones to send each other videos on their own time.
Studies have shown that sharing your story, or at the very least engaging in conversation with others who are experiencing similar traumas and understand what you're going through, can have a positive effect on your illness. Certain websites, like healthtalk.org, allow people to watch or listen to videos of others experiencing pain. The Global Healthy Living Foundation also offers a free COVID-19 support program for chronic disease patients and their families.
Focus on Staying Loose and Relaxed: Keeping yourself loose and relaxed is essential to muscle and joint health. Simple stretching, strength exercises, balance, and flexibility should be your focal points for coping with social distancing and beyond. Remember to understand your limits and don't give in to pushing your body unnecessarily.
With dedication and consistency, you will gradually loosen points of tension and build your flexibility. Whether it is your back, arms and shoulders, legs, hips, feet, or other muscles and joints, develop a routine that allows you time to stretch and strengthen yourself each day. My practice, Pain Physicians NY, offers a wonderful set of yoga-inspired exercises for neck pain, as well as techniques to prevent back pain, two of the most common pain complaints.
Commit to a Mental Health Practice: It's no secret that there is a direct correlation between chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. People who have chronic pain are shown to also suffer from depression three or four times more often than those who do not. In fact, 30 to 80 percent of chronic pain sufferers will also develop some type of depression. Take refuge in simple acts of self-care, whether that's journaling, meditation, making a pot of tea, creating daily gratitude lists, or cooking. Social distancing has caused the self-care movement to explode—utilize the many resources online to find ideas and connect with others doing the same.
Prioritize a Structured Sleep Routine: This can be especially challenging for patients with pain, but when they take naps in the day or go to bed at odd hours, their internal sleep cycle is disturbed. Many people with chronic pain dread going to bed, as that's when the pain is at its peak. But it's important to try to stick to a regular sleep routine so that your chances of uninterrupted sleep are improved. Furthermore, sleep deprivation can worsen the pain. Go to bed at the same time each evening, get up at the same time each morning, avoid taking naps during the day.
Set Reminders for Regular Movement: Nine out of 10 Americans facing chronic pain were reported as still going to work before the coronavirus. Now that businesses have closed their doors, and millions are working from home, this may present an even greater challenge for those who suffer from pain and find it easier to be relatively immobile, especially while at home. However, prolonged sitting leads to over-slouched posture, weak hips, thighs, and glutes, and weak abs.
Endorphins are our brain's natural painkillers. The coronavirus is presenting us with a unique opportunity to remain committed to a daily movement practice while isolated. Online workout classes are surging more than ever. Simple, everyday activities that can be done at a safe distance from others, like walking, swimming, gardening, and dancing, have shown to ease a person's pain directly by blocking pain signals to the brain.
Be a Quitter: Among the laundry list of cancers, cardiovascular, and respiratory illnesses associated with smoking, cigarettes also happen to make chronic pain worse by directly causing painful circulation problems. Similarly, alcohol inhibits healthy sleep patterns. If you're living with chronic pain, quitting smoking and limiting or completely eliminating alcohol intake can add years and dramatically improve your quality of life.
Revamp Your Refrigerator: Research constantly demonstrates how processed foods, sugar, alcohol, trans fat all trigger inflammation—which directly worsens chronic pain. Make a commitment to proactively increase your intake of colorful fruits and vegetables, organic poultry and eggs, wild-caught or sustainably farmed fish, green tea, grass-fed meat, and slow carbs—all of which have been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Certain spices, especially turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon, have also been shown to help chronic pain sufferers find relief.