This may not seem like a topic that a psychologist would traditionally be blogging about, but that is exactly why I am choosing to do so. At any given time, 31 million Americans are experiencing low back pain. It is among the most common reasons for missing work and accounts for $51 billion in spending each year. Anyone who has ever dealt with low back pain can tell you it has a significant negative impact on overall quality of life (e.g., enjoyment of time with family, ability to participate in activities etc.). Struggling each day with low back pain can also lead to struggles with depression and anxiety. Most people seek treatment from their primary care physician, and they are often disappointed in the results because there is no easy fix. As a psychologist who has worked in a primary care setting, I have seen the benefits of helping address mental health concerns arising from chronic pain in conjunction with medical treatments.
You may have heard something on the news over the last few years about the opioid epidemic. People becoming addicted to prescription pain pills, escalating to seeking out illegal drugs like heroin, and far too many overdose deaths. When we hear or read stories like that, it’s easy to think of it as somebody else’s problem, that it won’t affect us or people we know. Sadly, in this instance, that just isn’t the case. Because of the prevalence of chronic pain disorders in our country, of which low back pain is one example, many doctors have been pushed by the pharmaceutical industry to offer opioid pain medications (e.g., oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, fentanyl etc.) as a treatment option. Unfortunately, study after study shows that these pain medications are not intended to be used for chronic disorders and end up more likely to cause addiction issues than to alleviate suffering or improve quality of life. That is not to say they are ineffective for everybody, and I encourage you to work closely with your physician to determine the best course of medical treatment for your specific situation. But that brings me to why a psychologist is interested in low back pain. Please watch this video and then continue reading below:
I’ve included a video I feel does a good job explaining some of the less discussed aspects of coping with low back pain. As much as every helping professional would love the ability to wave their hand and make all pain and suffering disappear, most of us were not blessed with that ability by God (still praying that it comes someday!). My job as a psychologist working with patients suffering with low back pain is to help them identify their values (e.g., the important aspects of living their life), recognize how various pain levels affect their ability to function, and collaboratively develop a plan for being able to accept the presence of a certain level of pain and still be able to engage in activities consistent with their values. This combination has been shown to increase quality of life, reduce depressive symptoms, and actually reduce perceived pain levels. I also help people develop skills to reduce stress because increased stress worsens pain. We know our mind and body are inextricably linked, so it just makes sense to have your medical doctor and mental health professional working together to provide you the best outcome possible.
What you can do today
1) Consult with your PCP to understand the medical recommendations/limitations.
2) Take time to identify your own personal set of values. This worksheet is one of many available tools you can use to complete this exercise.
3) Consider the most important areas that you are not living in line with your values, and what specific steps you can take to move in the direction of these valued living goals.
4) Read about activity pacing, and begin to implement your goals in a structured way.
5) Notice what thoughts or beliefs you have about yourself, your life, and your progress, and consider whether they are helping or hurting your goals.
6) Evaluate what is working and what is not working, and develop new action steps to overcome unforeseen challenges.
7) If you're successfully living a more value-consistent life at this point, then enjoy it and carry on! If you continue to experience the depression, anxiety, or guilt, consider reaching out to a mental health provider who can walk along side you on your journey.
If you have any questions, or are interested in scheduling a free 30 minute consultation to discuss what this might look like for you, shoot me an email, give me a call 727-469-3008 or schedule today. You do not need to continue this struggle alone!