4 Reasons Why Now Is the Time To Address MSK Pain

November 4th, 2021  by  Dr. Louis Dickey – Medical Director

Musculoskeletal or MSK pain has become a high profile issue for benefits teams, due to its outsized impact on employee wellbeing and the cost required to treat it. Traditional remedies like surgery or pharmaceutical interventions have been found to be both expensive and ineffective. Now is the time to pursue a different approach to MSK pain.

Here are four reasons why many leading organizations are taking a fresh look at addressing MSK pain:

1. Healthcare spending. MSK conditions represent one-sixth of all spending in the U.S. healthcare market and between 2010 and 2019, MSK costs doubled, largely driven by increasingly more expensive surgeries. The annual costs of MSK conditions – including healthcare costs and lost worker productivity – is approximately $600 billion. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the annual costs associated with heart disease ($309 billion), cancer ($243 billion), and diabetes ($188 billion).

MSK unit costs have been on the rise, with spinal fusions being the most expensive procedure in inpatient hospital medical claims. In fact, total costs for inpatient spinal fusions more than doubled from $1.2 billion to $2.4 billion between 2010 and 2019 in a dataset of 40+ million Americans. The bottom line is that new approaches for resolving MSK pain represent an opportunity for employers to address a top healthcare cost driver.

2. COVID-19. The pandemic has affected MSK care in two major ways. The shift to working from home has aggravated the problem of MSK pain. Nearly three quarters of employees with MSK conditions (70%) report that their pain has either gotten worse or they are experiencing new pain since beginning a remote work routine. In addition, during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, more than half of adults (52%) skipped medical care. Although the healthcare system has resumed elective procedures and demand for medical services has returned to more normal, pre-pandemic levels, there are now huge backlogs for surgeries.

Studies have shown repeatedly that surgery and injections are ineffective for resolving back and joint pain. Employers now have a brief window of opportunity to implement new MSK programs that stop inappropriate surgeries and start more effective, conservative treatments like exercise therapy and lifestyle changes. Digital MSK care offers a scalable way to provide best-practice care that goes beyond physical therapy and includes behavioral support and programs to promote new lifestyle habits.

3. Mental health. As noted in a recent New York Times article, mind and body are inseparable when it comes to wellbeing. Untreated mental health conditions can increase the likelihood of developing a physical health condition, while physical disorders can exacerbate mental health issues.

MSK pain is complicated and multi-dimensional. Nearly two-thirds of people with depression experience chronic pain and it’s not uncommon for people to experience cycles of depression and pain. In fact, what happens is stress, anxiety, and depression can lead to a hyper-excited nervous system. This hyper-excited nervous system can intensify how people perceive pain. In fact, people who no longer have a physical injury can sometimes think they “feel pain.”

However, studies have shown that education can help patients overcome this pain. When patients understand the neuroscience behind why they are feeling pain and realize it’s not just physical, they are more willing to move and do their exercise therapy. Through education, they are able to overcome their fear of moving and ultimately, their sensation of pain.

By helping employees to overcome chronic MSK pain holistically, employers have the chance to directly affect both mental and physical health. Hinge Health members report not only a 69% decrease in physical pain, but a 58% reduction in anxiety and depression.

4. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). An important aspect of DEI is equitable access to healthcare. One study of postoperative outcomes in patients undergoing single-level lumbar fusions revealed that the presence of a social determinant of health disparity was associated with 70% increased odds of developing a complication.

Social determinants of health, such as socioeconomic status, neighborhood, occupational status, and education, also play a role in chronic pain. Researchers found that patients with lower levels of education were 2.8 times more likely to develop chronic knee pain after knee arthroscopy than those with higher levels of education. In addition, patients in lower socioeconomic levels are 63% more likely to receive only opioids for chronic pain, rather than opioids plus a non-pharmacologic treatment.

Opportunities exist for employers to improve equity by offering fair, easy-to-use, and affordable access to care through digital MSK solutions like Hinge Health.

There has never been a better time to evaluate new and innovative approaches to resolving MSK pain for your employees. Contact us to learn how Hinge Health’s Digital MSK Clinic can help your organization improve MSK outcomes, deliver an exceptional member experience, and reduce medical claims by using a holistic approach to care that acknowledges the importance of both mind and body.

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Dr. Louis Dickey
About the Author

Dr. Louis Dickey, Medical Director of Hinge Health, has over 40 years in the medical field as well as more than 10 years of benefits consulting. In his previous role as a consultant at Willis Towers Watson and his former role as a Senior Medical Director for National Accounts at Aetna, Dr. Dickey has worked with public, private, and hospital employers and their respective account teams to develop health care strategies and initiatives, programs and vendor assessments, and improvements and enhancements of their current programs and initiatives.

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