Tag Archives: chronic pain

Chronic Pain and Anxiety Disorders

Chronic pain by itself is often debilitating, and the struggle to obtain a correct diagnosis, effective pain management, and ongoing treatment can be stressful and overwhelming.  As we discussed in a previous post, depression often co-occurs with chronic pain, and can further complicate treatment.  The same is true of anxiety disorders.

Chronic Pain Disorders Associated with the Co-Occurrence of Anxiety

Like depression, anxiety is more likely to co-occur with certain conditions, such as:

It is no secret that physicians and dentists have stressful and demanding careers.  One Cardiff University study showed that of 2,000 British doctors, at various stages of their careers, 60% had experienced mental illness.[1]  Often practitioners ignore or fight through both chronic pain and anxiety and show up to work, to the point of endangering themselves or others before acknowledging their disability or seeking adequate treatment.

While anxiety alone can result in an inability to practice, either indefinitely or in the short-term, it is also quite common in those suffering from chronic pain to experience an anxiety disorder.  Anxiety disorders are also the most common type of psychiatric disorders in the United States, with 19 million adults affected.[2]

Chronic Pain and Anxiety—Worse Together

Facing a long-term or permanent disability can be anxiety provoking for a physician, who must (1) face giving up a career he or she invested so much time and financial resources to establish; (2) seek a correct diagnosis, course of treatment, and adequate pain management; and (3) often struggle with adapting to the loss of a previously enjoyed quality of life.  Conversely, chronic pain is also common in people with anxiety disorders,[3]  with up to 70% of people with certain medical conditions (including hypertension, diabetes, and arthritis) had an anxiety disorder first.[4]

Regardless of whether anxiety or chronic pain came first, individuals suffering from anxiety can experience pain that is particularly intense and hard to treat.[5]  In a 2013 study, 45% of 250 patients who had moderate to severe chronic joint or back pain screened positive for at least one of the common anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD).  Further, those that had an anxiety disorder reported significantly worse pain and health-related quality of life than their counterparts without anxiety.[6]

Symptoms of Anxiety[7]

There are several anxiety disorders and, while the below list is by no means exhaustive, sufferers of anxiety often exhibit the following symptoms:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  • Difficulty controlling worry
  • Restlessness, feeling wound-up or on edge, irritability, muscle tension
  • Being easily fatigued and problems with sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating or having their minds go blank

Panic Disorder

  • Sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear
  • Feelings of being out of control during a panic attack
  • Intense worries about when the next attack will happen
  • Avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past

Social Anxiety Disorder

  • Feeling highly anxious about being around other people (including having a hard time talking to them, blushing, sweating, trembling, or feeling sick to your stomach)
  • Feeling self-conscious in front of others and worried about feeling humiliated, embarrassed or rejected, or fearful of offending others
  • Worrying before an event and/or avoiding places where there are other people
  • Having a hard time making and keeping friends

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Flashbacks, bad dreams, difficulty sleeping, frightening thoughts, angry outbursts
  • Avoiding places, events, objects, thoughts, or feelings that are reminders of the traumatic experience and trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
  • Being easily startled and feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Negative feelings about oneself or the world, and distorted feelings like guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

  • Fear of germs or contamination
  • Unwanted or forbidden thoughts, including aggressive thoughts towards others or self
  • Having things symmetrical or in perfect order; excessive clearing and/or hand washing; ordering and arranging things in a precise way; repeatedly checking on things; compulsive counting

Treatments for Anxiety

Some of the treatments that have been successful in addressing anxiety in those with chronic pain include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Psychodynamic therapy (talk therapy)
  • Support groups
  • Relaxation or meditation training
  • Alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and hypnosis
  • Exercise
  • Medication

Chronic pain sufferers who recognize any of the above-referenced symptoms in themselves should talk to their doctor to address these serious issues.

[1] Michael Brooks, Why doctors’ mental health should be a concern for us all, NewStatesmen, April 11, 2016, http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2016/04/why-doctors-mental-health-should-be-concern-us-all

[2] What are Anxiety Disorders?, Global Medical Education, https://www.gmeded.com/gme-info-graphics/what-are-anxiety-disorders

[3] Chronic Pain, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, April, 2016, https://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/chronic-pain

[4] Global Medical Education, Supra.

[5] Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., The pain-anxiety-depression connection, Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-pain-anxiety-depression-connection

[6] Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, Chronic pain sufferers likely to have anxiety, ScienceDaily, May 8, 2013, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130508213112.htm

[7] Definitions according to National Institute of Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

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Chronic Pain and Depression

Chronic pain is often difficult to diagnose and treat.  Consequently, those who suffer from chronic pain typically must also deal with a significant amount of stress, due to repeated failed treatments, numerous medical appointments, interruption of work and enjoyable activities, and the inability of their friends or family to understand their physical limitations.  This can, in turn, cause or worsen depression.  When depression occurs alongside chronic pain, it can make dealing with and treating the pain even harder.

Chronic Pain Disorders Associated with the Co-Occurrence of Depression

While mental health conditions, including depression, can often be disabling in and of themselves, they are unfortunately also quite common in those suffering from chronic pain.  Depression is more likely to co-occur with certain conditions, such as:

  • Back Pain
  • Neck Pain
  • Joint Pain
  • Arthritis
  • Migraines
  • Fibromyalgia

Studies show that rates of depression are high in residents and medical students (15%-30%) than rates in the general population, and the risk of depression continues throughout a physician’s career.[1]  According to a British study, 60% of dentists reported being anxious, tense, or depressed.

Dentists, doctors, and other medical professionals place extreme amounts of pressure on themselves because the stakes of their professions are so high.  In addition to perfectionism and self-criticism, other predictors of depression in doctors include:  lack of sleep, stressful interactions with patients and staff, dealing with death, constant responsibility, loneliness, and making mistakes.[2]

Often practitioners work through both chronic pain and psychiatric disorders for some time before acknowledging their disability or seeking adequate treatment.  In the case of depression, this can be due in part to the social stigma that surrounds it.  For all of these reasons, depression may go undiagnosed or seem less of an immediate concern to those suffering from chronic pain.  However, if you are experiencing symptoms of depression and chronic pain, studies show that it is important to treat both, because chronic pain can become much more difficulty to treat if the depression is allowed to progress unchecked.

Chronic Pain and Depression—Worse Together

Facing a long-term or permanent disability can trigger depression—this is especially understandable for doctors or dentists who have put years into medical school and establishing their careers, only to become disabled and have to step away from a profession that has become a significant part of their identity. Depression can also precede chronic pain.  For example, several studies have examined the link between depression before the onset of back-pain.[3]

Regardless of which came first, together they are formidable to treat.  Major depression is thought to be four times greater in people with chronic back pain than those in the general population, and studies show that individuals suffering from both chronic back pain and depression experienced a greater degree of impairment than those with either depression or back pain alone.[4]

Treatments for Depression

Focusing solely on pain management can prevent both the patient’s and treating physician’s ability to recognize that a psychiatric disorder is also present.  Yet, even with correct diagnoses, both issues can be difficult to treat together.[5]  For instance, those who suffer from both chronic pain and mental illnesses can have a lower pain threshold as well as increased sensitivity to medication side-effects.[6]  Some treatments that have proved successful in addressing depression in those with chronic pain include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Psychodynamic therapy (talk therapy)
  • Relaxation or meditation training
  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnosis
  • Exercise
  • Medication

Symptoms of Depression

  • Little interest or pleasure in doing things
  • Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless
  • Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • Feeling tired or having little energy
  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling bad about yourself, or that you are a failure or have let yourself or others down
  • Thoughts that you would be better off dead, or hurting yourself in some way

Chronic pain sufferers who recognize any of the above-referenced symptoms in themselves should talk to their doctor to address these serious issues.

_________________________________________________________________________

[1] Robert P. Bright, MD, Depression and suicide among physicians, Current Psychiatry, April 10, 2011.

[2] Id.

[3] William W. Deardorff, PHD, ABPP, Depression Can Lead to Chronic Back Pain, Spine-health.com, Oct. 15, 2004, http://www.spine-health.com/conditions/depression/depression-can-lead-chronic-back-pain.

[4] William W. Deardorff, PhD, ABPP, Depression and Chronic Back Pain, Spine-health.com, Oct. 15, 2004, http://www.spine-health.com/conditions/depression/depression-and-chronic-back-pain.

[5] Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., The pain-anxiety-depression connection, Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-pain-anxiety-depression-connection.

[6] Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Chronic Pain,  https://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/chronic-pain.

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fMRI Brain Scanning: The Future of Proving Pain?

Many disability claimants suffering from chronic, intense pain are surprised and disheartened when their reported pain levels are received with skepticism by their insurance company.  Since pain is a subjective feeling, treating doctors typically ask patients to self-report their pain on a scale of 0-10, so that they can diagnose and treat the pain.  Unfortunately, most insurance companies are unwilling to accept self-reported pain levels and will often try to downplay the severity of the claimant’s pain, citing a lack of objective evidence.

Recently, researchers have developed a technology called functional MRI scans, or fMRIs, for short, which may provide a new way to objectively verify the existence of pain.  In this post, we will examine this technology and discuss how it might be used in the context of disability claims.

I.  What is an fMRI?

fMRI scanning is a noninvasive technique used by doctors to map and measure brain activity.  More specifically, fMRIs are used to measure and observe increases in MR signal caused by neural activity in the brain.  The fMRI data is then analyzed to determine which parts of the brain were active during the scan.  The data is then compared to known neurological signatures, or “biomarkers,” to determine if there are any correlations between the neural activity in the brain and the symptoms reported by the patient (such as chronic pain).

II. The Use of fMRI Scans to Prove Pain

Recently, a number of companies and researchers are focusing on using fMRI scans to produce objective evidence of pain.  For instance, Dr. Joy Hirsch, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, claims to have developed a test that is capable of distinguishing real, chronic pain from imagined pain.

fMRI scans are also now being used to support the cases of claimants in disability cases. For example, a woman in New York recently used an fMRI scan to convince her insurer, after two years of litigation, that her disability claim never should have been denied.  An fMRI scan was also recently used in the case of Carl Koch, a truck driver from Arizona who suffered severe burns when the hose of his tanker broke loose and sprayed him with molten tar.  Mr. Koch visited Dr. Hirsch, who used functional brain mapping to conclude that Mr. Koch’s pain was real.  When the judge ruled that Dr. Hirsch’s testimony would be admissible at trial, the case settled for $800,000 – an amount ten times higher than the company’s original offer.

III. What the Skeptics Say

The use of fMRI scans to prove pain remains controversial. Some critics argue that the techniques being used in litigation have little support in existing publications.  Others, such as Tor Wager, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Boulder, contend that the sample size in available studies is too small.  Proponents of fMRI refute both of these claims, arguing that a number of credible studies support the validity of their methods.

IV. The Future of fMRI Scans in Disability Cases

It’s easy to see how fMRI scans could prove useful in a disability claim.  For example, many dentists suffer from musculoskeletal disorders, particularly in their spines, that cause chronic, debilitating pain.  However, as noted above, these types of claims can be particularly difficult, because many insurance companies refuse to accept a claimant’s self-reported pain levels and limitations.  Co-workers, family, and friends can provide statements describing how the dentist’s pain is affecting his performance at work and his quality of life, but once again, insurance companies will typically similarly claim that such statements are “objectively verifiable” evidence of the pain.  Sometimes a cervical or lumbar MRI can identify potential causes for the pain, and/or a functional capacity exam (FCE) can help document the limitations the pain is causing—but these types of reports are also commonly challenged by insurance companies intent on denying benefits.

In such a case, an fMRI scan illustrating the doctor’s pain might serve as an additional, objectively verifiable method of establishing the existence of chronic pain.  Whether or not insurance companies are willing to accept fMRIs as reliable evidence of pain remains to be seen, and will likely depend, in large part, on how willing courts are to accept fMRIs as admissible evidence of pain.  If, in the future, this technology continues to develop and become more precise, and courts and juries demonstrate a willingness to accept fMRIs as proof of pain, fMRIs may eventually be enough to convince insurance companies to accept legitimate disability claims without ever setting foot in a courtroom.

REFERENCES:

  1. UC San Diego Sch. of Med., What is fMRI?, available at http://fmri.ucsd.edu/Research/whatisfmri.html.
  1. Sushrut Jangi, Measuring Pain Using Functional MRI, The New England Journal of Medicine, available at http://blogs.nejm.org/now/index.php/9863/2013/04/10/.
  1. Steven Levy, Brain Imaging of Pain Brings Success to Disability Claim, EIN Presswire (June 29, 2016), available at http://www.einpresswire.com/article/333249721/brain-imaging-of-pain-brings-success-to-disability-claim.
  1. Kevin Davis, Personal Injury Lawyers Turn to Neuroscience to Back Claims of Chronic Pain, ABA Journal (Mar. 1, 2016), available at http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/personal_injury_lawyers_turn_to_neuroscience_to_back_claims_of_chronic_pain.
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New Genetic Testing Predicts Most Effective Medications

In today’s pharmaceutical market there are countless prescription drugs marketed to people suffering from disabling conditions, and many of these drugs promise breakthrough relief not offered by their competitors. Individuals suffering from chronic pain and mental health disorders such as anxiety, PTSD, depression and bipolar must often take potent drugs for prolonged periods of time to get relief from their symptoms. But the search for relief can be incredibly frustrating – every person responds differently to the same drugs, and oftentimes powerful side effects can overshadow any relief.

For an individual suffering from the chronic and disabling pain brought on by severe spinal stenosis, there are several forms of treatment available – many of which are non-invasive. If other non-invasive treatments are unsuccessful, suffering through the side effects of several drugs in search of relief can be demoralizing. Powerful opioids can cause severe nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and/or constipation in certain individuals. The compounding effects of trying several different drugs can have a significant effect on one’s physical and mental health.

Recently, however, a genetic testing company has developed a simple test that will help countless individuals avoid dealing with unwanted side effects while cycling through different medications in their quest for relief.

Genesight has developed breakthrough genetic tests for both narcotic analgesics (pain medications) and psychotropic medications (treating mental health disorders). By taking a simple cheek swab, the company is able to analyze your DNA and determine which medications are match for your specific genetic profile. A clinical study of Gensight’s testing and analysis showed that patients were twice as likely to respond to the recommended medication.

This testing will likely be welcome news among those for whom relief is elusive. For many individuals suffering from disabling conditions, medications are very rarely the magic bullet that brings complete relief.  Symptoms may be so severe that no drug will ever be one hundred percent effective. More often, relief means alleviation of one’s symptoms just enough to get through the day without interminable pain or crippling anxiety while suffering only the more mild side effects. Genesight’s testing may offer hope for these individuals – people who will likely never be able to return to their previous career or their own occupation, but are in search of just enough relief from their symptoms to lead and enjoy a normal life.

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Alternative Treatments for Chronic Pain

Often, when an insured begins to suffer chronic pain, the insured’s first thought is to contact his or her doctor to seek out a prescription for pain medication.  At the same time, many insureds do not want to take pain medication because such medication can often have harmful side effects.  In this post, we will be looking at some alternative methods of treating chronic pain that insureds who are hesitant about taking pain medication may want to consider.

Acupuncture[1]

This is a technique where practitioners stimulate specific points on the body by inserting thin needles into the skin.

The Case For.  Results from several studies suggest that acupuncture is an effective method of treating chronic pain, particularly low-back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis/knee pain.

The Case Against.  Studies also suggest that, although acupuncture can help relieve back pain immediately after treatment, it is less effective as a long-term solution.  Additionally, improperly performed acupuncture can cause serious side effects, including infections, punctured organs, collapsed lungs, and injury to the central nervous system.

Hypnosis[2]

Stress often aggravates and increases chronic pain.  Hypnosis seeks to lessen pain levels by alleviating stress levels.

The Case For.  Multiple studies have shown that hypnosis is useful for reducing pain, including an analysis of studies by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine that revealed moderate to large pain-relieving effects from hypnosis.

The Case Against.  Other studies suggest that the positive effects of hypnosis are merely the result of a placebo effect.

Yoga[3]

While exercise is often recommended as a treatment for chronic pain, many insureds fear that rigorous exercise will actually increase, not lessen, their pain.  Yoga offers a gentle way to exercise that doesn’t involve too much stress on joints while still enabling you to strengthen the muscles around your joints.

The Case For.  Duke University Medical Center completed a review of 20 years’ worth of studies and found that yoga is an effective treatment for many forms of chronic pain, including osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and fibromyalgia.

The Case Against.  Yoga can be difficult for people who aren’t very flexible, and classes can sometimes be too strenuous for those just starting out.  Beginners should start with basic poses before attempting advanced poses that could exacerbate their pain if not performed properly.

Food[4]

Many people assert that altering your diet is an effective method of fighting pain-causing illnesses.  More specifically, foods that have been linked to lowering pain levels include:

  • Cherries (arthritis, muscle pain)
  • Ginger (migraines, arthritis, sore muscles)
  • Salmon (aching back, neck, and joints)
  • Turmeric (aching joints)
  • Edamame (arthritis)
  • Hot peppers (arthritis)

The Case For.  All of these foods are easy to find and fairly easy to work into your diet.  They are also present a natural alternative to medicines that may have potentially harmful side effects.

The Case Against.  These treatment options won’t necessarily work unless the rest of your diet is fairly healthy.  The potentially helpful effects of these foods will often be offset by the junk food that many people consume.  Consequently, a major overhaul your diet may be necessary in order to see any meaningful results.

Continue reading Alternative Treatments for Chronic Pain

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“Working Through Pain:
How Chronic Conditions Affect Dentists”

pretty dentist

Dentists are particularly at risk for disability due to the strenuous nature of their job.  Dentists are also some of the most likely to keep working through the pain–even if they shouldn’t be.  Our new article in Dentaltown Magazine explores how working through chronic pain can affect dentists in their personal and professional lives.  Read the full article at Dentaltown today.

“Working Through Pain: How Chronic Conditions Affect Dentists”

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What Happens If Your Plan Description Doesn’t Match Your Policy’s Terms?

Many people aren’t used to reading insurance policies. With their legal clauses, insurer-defined terms, and dry content, understanding them can be a challenge for insureds. For these reasons, insurers provide plain English summaries of their disability policies, both for marketing purposes and as a guide to benefits. But what happens if you rely upon the plan description in filing a disability claim only to be told that the actual policy language precludes your claim?

In the recent case of Weitzenkamp v. Unum Life Insurance Company, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals addressed such a discrepancy in a disability insurance policy and plan description. Susie Weitzenkamp was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression—all self-reported symptoms. Her summary plan description listed a twenty-four month restriction on disabilities due to mental illness and substance abuse. What the summary failed to mention, however, was that the policy also had a twenty-four month cap on benefits for disabilities primarily based on self-reported symptoms. Ms. Weitzenkamp suddenly found her benefits abruptly terminated.

On appeal, the Circuit Court noted that a summary plan description is intended to be a “capsule guide [to the plan] in simple language.” The relevant law required that the summary include “the plan’s requirements respecting eligibility for participation and benefits” and “circumstances which may result in disqualification, ineligibility, or denial or loss of benefits.” Because the summary failed to mention this important policy provision denying benefits for self-reported symptoms, it violated federal law. The court prohibited Unum from relying upon the policy provision in denying Ms. Weitzenkamp’s claim, reinstating her past benefits though still leaving her to prove her ongoing eligibility under the merits of the policy.

This case illustrates but a portion of the complexity in disability insurance cases. What can physicians do to protect themselves? It is important to thoroughly understand both your actual policy and the insurer’s marketing literature. Physicians should retain all insurer-provided materials from both before and after the purchase of their policy, and consult with an experienced disability insurance attorney should they need to file a claim.

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