Other the past several months, myself and others in our physical therapy practice have noticed several of our patients dealing with chronic pain come back to us because their pain has flared considerably.

There hasn’t been a consistent cause for the flare ups, such as a change in medications or activity level, so we suspect that all of the life stresses because of the COVID-19 pandemic are taking their toll.

Physical therapists working with chronic pain patients regularly counsel them on stress management, good sleep hygiene, and other methods of taking care of their mental and physical well-being.

I didn’t, however, receive any training in school or after on how to help people through a global pandemic. I wanted to get a better understanding of how these changes in our world are affecting people living with chronic pain, so I reached to an expert.

To get an insight into this topic, I spoke with Dr. Marcia Ward.

Dr. Ward is a clinical psychologist who works with adults and has specialty training in treating the elderly. She helps people improve the quality of their lives and cope with stress in positive ways.

Many of the people she works with have chronic pain. Her office is in Petoskey. She is seeing people in her office as well as over virtual/telehealth platforms.

MYM: Generally speaking, what types of interventions do you utilize when helping patients with chronic pain deal with their issues?

Ward: “There are many treatments I use when working with a patient who comes to me with chronic pain. I help a person understand how their pain affects other areas of their life, such as their mood, their self-image, and their relationships with loved ones. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps a person stop using negative thoughts and behaviors with their pain and learn more positive skills. I also use Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) approaches to pain management, such as teaching my patients muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and simple breathing techniques to decrease pain.”

MYM: How long does it usually take patients with chronic pain to seek help for their mental health from the onset of their symptoms?

Ward: “It usually takes too long for people to ask for help for the negative emotional effects that chronic pain usually causes. With that said, it’s never too late to seek out supportive counseling. Going to therapy isn’t a sign of personal weakness; it’s normal to feel worried about how chronic pain affects life. Anxious and depressive symptoms often go hand in hand with chronic pain.”

MYM: Does seeking help earlier improve outcomes?

Ward: “Seeking help from a psychologist or counselor sooner rather than later can be very helpful. Therapists can teach a person skills to decrease symptoms of anxiety (such as excessive worry about the pain) or depression (such as problems with sleep at night or low energy in the daytime). This helps to prevent emotional problems (and physical pain) from getting worse. Even just a couple therapy sessions can help a person feel more in control over their pain and more positive about their life.”

MYM: Have patients dealing with chronic pain reported changes in their coping ability since the pandemic began?

Ward: “Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted treatments for people with pain because regular out-patient appointments with doctors and physical therapists have had to be cancelled or postponed. Also, many of the support systems that people usually use to help them cope with their pain (such as getting together with friends and family or church services) have had to be cancelled. This has led many people to report feeling isolated and lonely. Believe it or not, this can make a patient’s perception of their pain worsen.”

MYM: What resources are available in our community to people with chronic pain when it comes to addressing their mental health?

Ward: “There are so many resources available in the Northern Michigan community to help with emotional wellness for people with chronic pain. Check out Psychology Today’s website “Find a Therapist” to see who is accepting new patients. Many therapists offer both in-office sessions and teletherapy sessions at this time. Additionally, the abundance of nature preserves, walking trails, and shoreline access offer opportunities to soak in the healing power of nature which has been shown to improve emotional health and decrease perceptions of pain.”