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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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Case Study: Mental Health Disability Claims – Part 1

In a previous post, we have discussed how ERISA claims are different from other disability claims. We have also looked at an ERISA case involving “abuse of discretion” review. However, there is another type of review under ERISA—“de novo” review. Unlike abuse of discretion review, under de novo review, the court assesses the merits of the disability claim without affording any deference to the insurer’s decision. Whether your claim is governed by abuse of discretion review or de novo review will depend on the terms of your plan. An experienced disability attorney can look at your policy and let you know which standard will apply.

In this post, we will be looking at two things. First, we will be looking at a case where the court reversed the denial of benefits under de novo review. Second, we will be looking at some of the issues that commonly arise in mental health disability claims. In Part 1, we will be looking at the initial determination made by the court regarding whether the claimant was entitled to benefits. In Part 2, we will be looking at how the court determined the amount of benefits the claimant was entitled to.

In Doe v. Unum Life Insurance Company of America[1], the claimant was a trial attorney with a specialty in bankruptcy law. After several stressful events, including his wife being diagnosed with cancer, claimant started experiencing debilitating psychological symptoms. The claimant was ultimately diagnosed with anxiety, major depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), and Asperberger’s syndrome. He filed for long term disability benefits, but the insurer, Unum, denied his claim. The court reversed Unum’s claim denial under de novo review, for the following reasons:

  • First, the court found the opinions and medical records of the claimant’s treatment providers to be “reliable and probative.” Id. More specifically, the court determined that claimant’s conditions fell within the expertise of the treating psychiatrist and that the psychiatrist’s conclusions were corroborated by neuropsychological testing.
  • Second, the court determined that the opinions provided by Unum’s file reviewers were not credible or reliable. The court noted that while Unum’s in-house consultants claimed that the neuropsychological testing did not provide sufficient evidence of disability, the single outside independent reviewer hired by Unum concluded the opposite and determined that there was no evidence of malingering and that the tests were valid.
  • Finally, the court rejected Unum’s argument that claimant’s psychiatrist should have provided more than a treatment summary. The court determined that this was “a problem of Unum’s own making,” because the evidence showed that Unum expressly stated in written correspondence that it was willing to accept a summary of care letter in lieu of the claimant’s original medical records.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we will look at how much benefits the claimant actually ended up receiving.

[1] No. 12-CV-9327 LAK, 2015 WL 4139694, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. July 9, 2015).

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