The Domino Effect of COVID-19 on Chronic MSK Pain Sufferers

The pandemic has taken a major toll on the health of Americans, both through the direct impact of COVID-19 and through the “collateral damage” of delayed care, lack of exercise, and other lifestyle factors.

Published Date: Mar 30, 2022

Our Hinge Health Experts

Hinge Health
Hinge Health

The pandemic has taken a major toll on the health of Americans, both through the direct impact of COVID-19 and through the “collateral damage” of delayed care, lack of exercise, and other lifestyle factors. Experts believe that in the coming months, there could be a dramatic increase in the number of chronic pain cases in the United States. Key contributing factors include:

- Delayed medical care. A recent survey by The Hartford found that 43% of American workers have postponed their appointments for routine healthcare since the pandemic. Many individuals with existing musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions have put off care, exacerbating their chronic pain.

- Impact of working from home. Although working from home has kept employees protected from COVID-19 exposure, it has led to a few unintended consequences. Non-ergonomic working conditions have contributed to increased back and neck pain. Hunching over a computer at a dining room table or working from a couch can cause poor body alignment and microtrauma overuse injuries. As a result, people may experience new types of MSK pain or the recurrence of pain in their necks, backs, shoulders, hips, or knees.

- Reduced physical activity and more mental stress. As gyms and fitness centers closed during the pandemic, it became difficult for many to maintain their former levels of exercise. In addition, some people responded to the isolation of the pandemic by eating more or eating less healthfully. Researchers anticipate a 14% increase in obesity due to the pandemic, leading to increased joint pain.

A recent study by Prealize Health suggests that the American healthcare system could see a 22% increase in medical encounters associated with joint pain and a 7% increase in encounters associated with spine problems. However, using a “status quo” approach to treating an increased number of chronic pain sufferers isn’t a recipe for success.

Chronic Pain Treatment Must Go Beyond the Physical Injury

When individuals seek medical help for chronic pain, clinicians often focus on physical injuries. This results in costly spine surgeries and other interventions that fail to stop the pain in many instances. Since it’s clear that many cases of chronic pain are related to lifestyle, behavioral, and emotional health factors, a lifestyle medicine approach is a better alternative.

A treatment plan based on lifestyle medicine has three components:

1. Pain neuroscience education. The brain processes pain, so changing a person’s understanding of pain can change their perception of it. As people realize that their pain, though real, isn’t a sign of physical injury, they are more willing to engage in exercises and physical activity.

2. Exercise. Movement has many physiological benefits, but it can also desensitize the nervous system when done correctly. In addition, exercise can enhance one’s sense of well-being by releasing endorphins and other chemicals.

3. Behavioral support. While physical therapy is crucial in a treatment plan for chronic pain, it’s not enough on its own. To address chronic pain, individuals often need help with their diets, sleep patterns, and more. Professionals trained in behavioral health and lifestyle modification techniques can help.

Hinge Health incorporates lifestyle medicine into its unique, integrated approach to MSK care. Its Digital MSK Clinic™ blends an integrated care team with comprehensive technology and connected care. A holistic care team consisting of physical therapists, health coaches, physicians, and surgeons identifies the unique combination of exercises and lifestyle modifications that are most likely to address each individual’s MSK pain.

With the Hinge Health app, participants can engage in exercise therapy at home, at their convenience. Thanks to wearable sensors, people feel confident that they are using the correct form as they perform their exercises. Hinge Health’s Enso wearable device provides noninvasive and nonaddictive pain relief that enables individuals to participate in exercise therapy without pain and get back on track.

Hinge Health participants report a 69% improvement in pain and two out of three surgeries are avoided. The lifestyle medicine approach to care leads to lasting behavior change and new habits that stick. Two years after completing the Hinge Health program, 70% of participants continue to do their exercises on their own.

Although the number of individuals with new or recurring chronic pain due to MSK conditions will likely rise in the coming months, there is still reason to hope. Treatment plans based on lifestyle medicine go beyond the physical symptoms, resulting in pain relief and beneficial behavior changes.

To learn more about how to help your employees and members better manage their chronic pain, download our latest white paper, Chronic Pain Explained.