Each year, 1 in 5 Americans suffer from chronic pain. Chronic pain is categorized as pain that usually lasts longer than six months. Conditions such as osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, headache or migraine disease, neck pain, or back pain can have significant effects on patients and how they live their lives. And now, according to the U.S. Pain Foundation, chronic pain may put patients at higher risk of developing serious illness as a result of COVID-19. With the added stress of the coronavirus pandemic, many patients are undergoing increased levels of pain, anxiety, and uncertainty.
Jennifer Gargano, MD, a pain management physician at Rochester Regional Health’s Spine & Pain Center, explains how the coronavirus pandemic impacts chronic pain patients, provides advice for them and their caregivers, and discusses the changes Rochester Regional Health has made to care delivery.
“Many symptoms of chronic pain illnesses are similar to symptoms of COVID-19, such as feeling achy or tired. As a result, patients struggle to differentiate their symptoms between chronic pain illness and COVID-19 symptoms,” said Dr. Gargano.
In an effort to keep patients and staff safe, the Spine & Pain Centers have had to rethink the way their care is delivered. “We shifted our focus to home exercises, home physical treatment, and medication management.”
Telemedicine has become a convenient and effective way to provide necessary medical services to patients with chronic pain. Via telemedicine, our physicians are able to provide patients with guidance for physical at-home exercises for pain relief. Depending on the type and location of pain, patients were instructed to regularly perform exercise routines to help reduce pain, such as yoga.
Medication management is another service offered at the Spine & Pain Center.
“We help patients manage their medications, and since many patients have been nervous about going to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions, we are able to recommended useful over-the-counter medications and provide our patients with instructions for administering prescription and nonprescription drugs all via telemedicine,” said Dr. Gargano.
A recent study by the U.S. Pain Foundation asked 600 chronic pain patients about the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on them. 86% admitted to experiencing increased levels of stress.
Stress affects health and wellness in various ways. Extended periods of stress can have a negative impact on the immune system, such as increased depression, headaches, heartburn, insomnia, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and more. It’s important for patients to manage their stress and anxiety levels and work to reduce them.
“As a pain management physician, I’ve given several patients referrals to Rochester Regional Health’s behavioral health specialists throughout the coronavirus pandemic,” said Dr. Gargano. “I also recommend stress management techniques like healthy dieting, gentle exercise routines, good sleep, and meditation.”
Caregivers and family members can also help patients reduce stress. Encouraging healthy habits and mindfulness can help patients calm down and minimize anxiety.
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“Reaching out to your loved ones often has a great, positive impact on their mental health. Video chatting or calling people who may feel isolated, especially elders in long term care, really helps reduce stress.”
Patients with chronic rheumatic and immune diseases are often prescribed medications that purposely suppress the immune system to reduce symptoms like pain. Those suffering from lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and other autoimmune diseases may be concerned about the increased risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19 due to the medications they take.
“Patients taking Immunosuppressants can’t fight off illness as well as a healthy person. Similar to patients with cancer, their bodies aren’t as well-equipped to defend itself against infection.”
These patients should take extra precautions to stay safe and healthy. Keep a safe distance from others, avoid crowded places, and practice diligent hand-hygiene to reduce the risk of COVID-19.
“Our offices are back up and running to near full capacity,” said Dr. Gargano. “We continue to take special precautions to keep all patients and staff safe. For example, we’re staggering appointments and closing off waiting rooms to reduce patient interaction.”
Attending doctor’s appointments and making necessary visits to the hospital is key to maintaining health. “For those who are still apprehensive about visiting our offices, we are still offering telemedicine appointments.”
Dr. Gargano adds that for patients with chronic pain, it’s especially important to receive regular medical care from your doctor. “Chronic health problems can worsen if they are not taken care of, so it’s important to understand that the doctor’s office is a safe place to be.”
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