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
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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
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.
 Robert P. Bright, MD, Depression and suicide among physicians, Current Psychiatry, April 10, 2011.
 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.
 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.
 Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., The pain-anxiety-depression connection, Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-pain-anxiety-depression-connection.
 Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Chronic Pain, https://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/chronic-pain.
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, 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.
 No. 12-CV-9327 LAK, 2015 WL 4139694, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. July 9, 2015).