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 Part 1 of this post, we discussed the anatomy of the spine and some of the causes of Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD). In Part 2 of this post, we will be discussing some of the symptoms of DDD, and some of the methods used to treat DDD.
Not all people with intervertebral disc degeneration experience pain or other symptoms. This is due to the fact that the degeneration of the discs, by itself, does not bring on the symptoms described in the first paragraph above. However, as disc degeneration becomes more severe, it can lead to other conditions that bring on the symptoms people normally associate with DDD (e.g., pain, numbness and tingling, weakness, etc.). Some of the conditions commonly associated with DDD are:
- Spinal osteoarthritis: Sometimes referred to as spondylosis, this condition occurs when the breakdown of the cartilage and intervertebral discs leads to increased contact and irritation of the vertebrae. It may also lead to the formation of osteophytes (abnormal bone growths) on the vertebrae that can also put pressure on nerves and contribute to the pain and nerve-related issues described above.
- Spinal stenosis: This condition can occur when an individual develops spondylosis. The inflammation associated with spinal osteoarthritis may cause a narrowing of the spinal canal (the hollow space in the middle of the vertebrae through which the spinal cord travels) and put pressure on the spinal cord. This pressure on the spinal cord can cause numbness, weakness, cramping, or general pain in the arms and legs. In some cases it can also cause bowel and bladder dysfunction.
- Foraminal stenosis: This condition is the result of reduced space between the vertebrae, often brought on by the degeneration of the intervertebral discs. The reduced space may lead to increased pressure on nerve roots emerging from the spinal cord, resulting in localized pain as well as numbness, tingling, and weakness in the extremities.
Because DDD can cause such a broad range of symptoms and subsequent conditions, the treatment options vary widely. Depending on the circumstances, treatment can range from conservative options, such as physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications, to surgical intervention, in the form of a discectomy, laminectomy, laminoplasty, or spinal fusion.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, the best course of action is to consult a physician.
For more information on how disability insurers evaluate claims based on Degenerative Disc Disease, see:
This post is the first in a series we will be doing on common orthopedic issues. In Part 1 of this post, we will discuss the anatomy of the spine and some of the causes of Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD), a common yet misunderstood spinal condition that affects a large portion of the population. In Part 2 of this post, we will go over some of the symptoms of DDD and some of the methods for treating DDD.
There are thirty-three vertebrae in the vertebral column of the human spine, twenty-four of which articulate and move. Between each of the vertebrae in the three articulating sections of the spine – the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine – there is an intervertebral disc. Each disc, composed of soft jelly-like center (nucleus pulposus) surrounded by a capsule of connective tissue (annulus fibrosis), provides shock absorption and flexibility within the spine. There is very little blood flow to this region of the body, and if discs are damaged or deteriorate they cannot regrow or heal themselves.
Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) is the breakdown in the size and cushioning of the intervertebral discs, which can lead to chronic pain, weakness, numbness and tingling in extremities, and reduced flexibility in the spine. The name of the condition is actually somewhat of a misnomer – it is not actually a “disease”, but rather a condition that is characterized by the degeneration of the intervertebral discs over time. Because of this, the condition can be confusing to understand.
Reduction in the size and cushioning of your discs is part of the normal process of aging, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have shown that almost everyone over the age of 60 has degeneration of their intervertebral discs to some degree. Not all people with disc degeneration have back pain or other symptoms – in fact, individuals with relatively mild disc degeneration may experience no symptoms whatsoever.
However, age is not the only factor in DDD. Deterioration of the intervertebral discs can be accelerated and exacerbated by other factors. The culprit in many severe cases of DDD is stress-related damage in the form of repetitive use, trauma, injury, poor posture, poor movement, and obesity. Among these, one of the most common factors is repetitive use.
Medical professionals are particularly susceptible to developing DDD due to the static postures that some specialties require in clinical practice, most notably dentists. For example, the repetitive, static posture of a dentist performing clinical procedures creates compressive forces on the cervical discs due to neck flexion and compressive forces on the lumbar discs due to axial loading (the weight of the body compressing the spine vertically). When these compressive forces are applied for year after year on a daily basis, the result can be an accelerated deterioration of the intervertebral discs.
For more information on how disability insurers evaluate claims based on Degenerative Disc Disease, see:
In Part 1 of this post, we listed some of the symptoms and potential causes of myelopathy. In Part 2, we will discuss some of the methods used to treat myelopathy.
Methods of Treating Myelopathy
- Avoidance of activities that cause pain;
- Using a brace to immobilize the neck;
- Physical therapy (primarily exercises to improve neck strength and flexibility);
- Various medication (including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), oral corticosteroids, muscle relaxants, anti-seizure medications, antidepressants, and prescription pain relievers);
- Epidural steroid injections (ESI);
- Narcotics, if pain is very severe;
- Surgical removal of bone spurs/herniated discs putting pressure on spinal cord;
- Surgical removal of portions of vertebrae in spine (to give the spinal cord more room); and
- Spinal fusion surgery.
Myelopathy can be severely debilitating, particularly for doctors and dentists. Obviously, any physician or dentist who is experiencing a loss of motor skills, numbness in hands and arms and/or high levels of chronic pain will not be able to effectively treat patients.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may want to ask your doctor to conduct tests to see if your spinal cord is being compressed. If you have myelopathy and the pain and numbness has progressed to the point where you can no longer treat patients effectively or safely, you should stop treating patients and consider filing a disability claim.
In previous posts, we have discussed a number of disabling conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, essential tremors, carpal tunnel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. In this post, we are going to talk about another serious condition that can severely limit a physician or dentist’s ability to practice—myelopathy. In Part 1, we will discuss some of the causes and symptoms of myelopathy. In Part 2, we will discuss some of the methods used to treat myelopathy.
What is Myelopathy?
Myelopathy is an overarching term used to describe any neurologic deficit caused by compression of the spinal cord.
The onset of myelopathy can be rapid or it can develop slowly over a period of months. In most cases, myelopathy is progressive; however, the timing and progression of symptoms varies significantly from person to person.
What Causes Myelopathy?
There are several potential causes of myelopathy, including:
- Bone fractures or dislocations due to trauma/injury;
- Inflammatory diseases/autoimmune disorders (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis);
- Structural abnormalities (e.g. bone spurs, disc bulges, herniated discs, thickened ligaments);
- Vascular problems;
- Infections; and
- Degenerative changes due to aging.
Symptoms of Myelopathy
The symptoms of myelopathy will vary from case to case, because the nature and severity of the symptoms will depend on which level of the spine is being compressed—i.e. cervical (neck), thoracic (middle), or lumbar (lower)—and the extent of the compression.
Some of the symptoms of myelopathy include:
- Neck stiffness;
- Deep aching pain in one or both sides of neck, and possibly arms and shoulders;
- Grating or crackling sensation when moving neck;
- Stabbing pain in arm, elbow, wrist or arms;
- Dull ache/tingling/numbness/weakness in arms, hands, legs or feet;
- Position sense loss (i.e. the inability to know where your arms are without looking at them);
- Deterioration of fine motor skills (such as handwriting and the ability to button shirts);
- Lack of coordination, imbalance, heavy feeling in the legs, and difficulty walking;
- Clumsiness of hands and trouble grasping;
- Intermittent shooting pains in arms and legs (especially when bending head forward);
- Incontinence; and
- Paralysis (in extreme cases).
Alzheimer’s disease is a serious disability that can dramatically impact a physician or dentist’s ability to practice. In this post, we will be looking at some of the risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s, some of the signs that may indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s, and some of the proposed methods of treating Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that affects memory, thinking, and behavior. There are three primary risk factors for Alzheimer’s:
- Age: Most people that have Alzheimer’s are 65 or older, and the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after age 65.
- Heredity: Scientists have identified certain “risk” genes that can contribute to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Amyloid precursor protein (APP), presenilin-1 (PS-1), and presenilin-2 (PS-2) are proteins that directly cause Alzheimer’s, although “deterministic” Alzheimer’s occurs in only 5% of cases. APOE-e4 is another gene that scientists believe may be a factor in 20 to 25% of cases, although they are not sure precisely how it increases the risk.
- Family History: People who have parents, siblings, or even children with the disease are more likely to have Alzheimer’s. The risk also increases as more family members develop the disease.
The Alzheimer’s Association lists 10 warning signs that may indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s: Continue reading “Alzheimer’s: Is there a Helpful Drug on the Horizon?”
We’ve done a profile on how Parkinson’s disease can affect physicians and dentists, but did you know that essential tremors are eight times more common than Parkinson’s disease? A hand tremor is one of the last things a physician or dentist wants. Not only can it affect daily life, but working with patients safely becomes increasingly difficult.
In this post, we will list some of the risk factors and common symptoms associated with essential tremors and take a look at what can be done to perhaps alleviate symptoms.
What is an essential tremor and what are the symptoms?
An essential tremor (ET) is a neurological disorder that causes rhythmic shaking of part of the body—most often the hands, head, or voice.
The primary symptoms of ET are involuntary shaking, voice fluctuations, nodding head, balance problems, and tremors that get worse during periods of emotional stress, fatigue, caffeine use, and/or purposeful movement. ET is a progressive disorder than can become worse over time.
What is the difference between Parkinson’s and ET?
Many people believe that Parkinson’s and ET are the same thing. However, there are some subtle differences between the two conditions, including:
- Timing: ET usually occurs when you are in motion, while Parkinson’s is most noticeable when you are at rest.
- Related Conditions: ET generally does not cause other health problems, but Parkinson’s has been connected to poor posture, a shuffling gait, and slow movement.
- Parts of Body Affected: ET is most common in the hands, head, and voice. Parkinson’s most often starts in your hands and may also affect the legs and chin.
What are the causes and how do you know if you are at risk?
ET appears to be a genetic disorder, because approximately 50% of people with ET have a particular genetic mutation. However, scientists are not sure what causes ET in people who do not have the genetic mutation. Researchers have found that changes in specific areas of the brain may contribute to development of the condition, but such studies are inconclusive.
Because the other causes of ET are unknown, the primary way to determine whether you have a high risk of developing essential tremors is to check your family history. Due to the fact that the mutation is an autosomal dominant disorder, if one of your parents has ET, you have a 50% chance of developing the disorder. Another risk factor is age—people over 40 are more likely to have an ET.
Is there a cure for ET or a way to prevent it?
Unfortunately, is currently not a cure for ET. However, now that scientists have found a genetic link, further research could potentially discover ways to prevent ET.
How can I alleviate my symptoms?
Since emotional stress is one of the things that can aggravate ET, look for ways to relieve your stress. Other methods of alleviating ET include decreasing your coffee and caffeine intake and making sure that you get an adequate amount of sleep each night. Certain medications may also can help with ET, although it is important to speak with your doctor before starting any sort of treatment. Finally, surgery may be an option in some cases, although surgery certainly is not without its risks. Surgery for ET generally involves the implantation of a DBS, or a Deep Brain Stimulator. The DBS is a small device that delivers targeted electrical stimulation to the brain in an effort to reduce the frequency of tremors.
In addition to the foregoing methods of alleviating ET symptoms, there are other things that you can do to make living with ET easier, such as using a travel mug or straw for drinks, using heavier utensils for eating, wearing clothes that don’t have difficult buttons or laces, and saving your most difficult tasks for days when your tremor is least pronounced.
As we have blogged many times, even seemingly straightforward terms like “total disability” or “appropriate medical treatment” in your disability insurance policy may have different meanings in the context of a disability insurance claim than they do in everyday English. In a video posted on YouTube, Jack McGarry, CEO, Unum UK, is surprisingly candid in addressing how their insurance policy language is confusing.
Insurance is so confusing, in large part because we’ve made it that way, the insurance companies. We use acronyms instead of words, we use lingo instead of language. We’ve made it easy for us to communicate with each other, but we’ve made it very, very difficult for consumers to understand what we’re saying, and we need to change that.
[Consumers] are confused by our products, they don’t understand the choices, they don’t understand the coverage, and one of the reasons they don’t understand it is because the language we use to describe it, they find it confusing, and a little scary, so we’re partnering with Plain English to help simply the language we use to describe what we do so everybody can understand it.
While Unum is apparently taking steps to clarify the language in its policies in the United Kingdom, it is of little help to American insureds who purchased policies written in language that is, in the words of Unum’s UK CEO, ”very, very difficult for consumers to understand.” The help of an experienced disability insurance attorney to interpret the language of your policy can be critical in ensuring you receive the benefits to which you are entitled.
In the wake of a number of complaints from passengers with disabilities, the Transportation Security Administration is planning to launch a toll free disability hotline in January so that passengers with disabilities can call in advance if they anticipate needing extra assistance during security screening. In recent months, there have been numerous complaints, many from elderly women, alleging that TSA agents subjected them to strip searches because they were unfamiliar with the specialized medical devices the women were wearing.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. and New York State Senator Michael Gianaris made a request in a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security and TSA officials for passenger advocates to be trained and familiarized with various medical conditions and medical devices so that they can provide “alternative methods for addressing the needs and concerns of elderly, disabled and other vulnerable passengers.”
Senator Schumer further said:
While the safety and security of our flights must be a top priority, we need to make sure that flying does not become a fear-inducing, degrading and potentially humiliating experience. Right now, passengers who feel that their rights are about to be violated have nowhere to turn, but by training passenger advocates at each of our airports, the TSA can finally give passengers a voice.
TSA has not commented on the proposal but issued a statement reminding the public that customer service representatives are available at most airports. The TSA currently offers Tips for the Screening Process on its website as well as other more detailed information, and we will be reviewing some of the other regulations for passengers with disabilities in subsequent blog posts.
UPDATE: The TSA Cares hotline designed to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions has now been launched. It is recommended that those traveling with special medical needs contact the hotline at least 72 hours in advance of their arrival at the airport with questions about screening policies, procedures and to coordinate getting through the security checkpoints. The TSA Cares toll-free hotline number is 1-855-787-2227, and its hours of operation are Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 EST, excluding federal holidays.
When a disability insurance company is fighting a claim, it will often agree to pay benefits – but with a “reservation of rights.” What is a reservation of rights and how can it impact a legitimate disability claim?
When an insurer pays a claim under a reservation of rights, it is essentially providing a provisional payment. Though the insurance company may be sending you a check, it is not admitting that it actually has any liability under the policy. Instead, it is “reserving the right” to stop paying your claim if it can find evidence to deny it later. Once the company denies your claim, they can also demand you to repay them whatever proceeds they have distributed to you.
This practice is good for the insurance company, as it buys it extra time to investigate – and often later deny – a claim without putting it at risk of violating the laws against undue delay in payment. However, because the insurance company can still investigate the claim and then demand full repayment at any moment, the reservation of rights provides no peace of mind for the policyholder. Fortunately, a disability insurance attorney can protect you from this uncertainty by properly presenting your claim and thoroughly monitoring the insurance company’s actions to reach a beneficial result.
As we have discussed in the past, surveillance is a tool commonly used by disability insurance companies to analyze – and often deny – legitimate disability claims. When surveillance is taken out of context or misconstrued, it can lead to unfair disability denials.
All too often, disability insurance companies expect people with disabilities to stay at home, in bed. What they fail to realize is that most doctors actually encourage disabled claimants to try some activities of daily living, light physical therapy, or social interaction. Just because a disabled person can eat chips at a restaurant with family doesn’t mean he can perform all of the duties of his former occupation. Nevertheless, disability insurers often try to get any physical activity on camera and use it as proof that the claimant is not disabled.
Many people filing for private disability wonder when private investigators are watching them. After years of dealing with disability insurance detectives, we have recognized the five most popular times for surveillance of policyholders:
- During holidays. This is when policyholders are likely to be out of the house enjoying time with family and friends.
- On the claimant’s birthday. Just as on holidays, a disabled claimant is likely to push themselves to get out and enjoy the day.
- Over weekends. During weekends, insureds or more likely to attempt minor errands or go outside with family.
- Any time they have a chance of catching a claimant engaged in physical activity, based on information provided by the claimant on activity logs and in interviews. For example, if the claimant wrote on an activity log that he takes his dogs out in the morning, the private investigator will be there with a camera to document the insured walking in the yard.
- Near the end of fiscal quarters, when the insurance company is under pressure to save money by denying or terminating claims.