Treating Chronic Pain Patients in the Time of Omicron

Managing chronic pain has always been challenging. Patients constantly require medical attention, or the quality of their lives may decrease severely. But getting treatments may not be as easy today, with the threat of the Omicron variant looming in healthcare facilities.

Many people assume the variant is far milder than delta and the original COVID-19 strain. But hospitalizations continue to rise in the United States. On top of that, the country records more than 750,000 new cases daily. The grave situation can scare off chronic pain sufferers from getting treatment. Clinics and other pain management facilities, in turn, may lose significant revenue.

Chronic pain and COVID-19 may have nothing in common, but the Omicron variant is unique. Lower back pain, a common complaint of many physiology patients, turns out to be a possible symptom of COVID-19 now. Without a doubt, doctors can now be exposed to the virus just for treating seemingly harmless back pain.

But refusing treatment to pain patients isn’t an option when so much is at stake for both parties. Here’s how skilled pain doctors work through the crisis while minimizing risks:

doctors in front of the computer

Shifting to Telehealth

Telehealth has been a helpful alternative for physical therapy patients without the need for manual treatments. In fact, physical therapists have been working virtually since the onset of COVID-19. Telehealth allowed them to monitor the healing progress of their patients. For those who require manual therapy, physical therapists virtually coached them on altering their environments or performing various exercises. Even if they can’t put their hands on their patients, their guidance has allowed them to stay on track with their patients’ therapies.

A typical telehealth session can go as follows: the patient will show their therapist how they move, stand, or hold an assistive device, like a cane. Their therapist will then make recommendations on how the patient can improve their posture and other basic movements.

Frequent Disinfection and Daily Use of PPE

Disinfection and PPEs (personal protective equipment) were heavily used in 2020, and we won’t be getting rid of them anytime soon. All types of clinics have been spending generously on disinfectants and PPEs for the past two years. Physical therapy facilities have it rather hard because all their patients touch and grip surfaces. As such, they scheduled patients farther apart. But they faced challenges in procuring PPEs.

Clinics who couldn’t get a hold of PPEs fast enough were forced to close their doors. Performing face-to-face treatments without protection simply wasn’t an option. Hence, clinics planned PPE procurement strategies thoroughly to avoid losing revenue and patient trust.

Delaying Vital Manual Treatments

Despite telehealth’s assistance, not all chronic pain patients benefited from it. But doctors had no choice but to delay certain treatments, like aqua therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and stress management treatments. This had led to worsened pain in some patients.

Rushing to the emergency room wasn’t always an option either because they could be turned away to prioritize COVID-19 patients. Buying medication proved challenging as well because of the health protocols. Fortunately, some states have enacted laws to ease access to medication. For instance, the Texas Medical Board temporarily suspended parts of the Texas Administrative Code in March 2020. It allowed temporary telephone refills for chronic pain medications like narcotics.

But this posed another challenge, which was weaning patients off narcotics without a doctor’s physical guidance. Studies show that long-term exposure to opioids can cause addiction. Hence, chronic patients in the process of weaning experienced hindrances. Some have stopped their weaning process altogether and risked addiction.

Maximizing Technology to Optimize Care and Raise Awareness

Even though it’s not perfect, telehealth still proved that doctors could optimize treatments amid a crisis. They successfully prescribed medications, monitored patients, and helped manage pain remotely. Therefore, telehealth has been a great tool in reducing the spread of the virus. It also allowed chronic pain patients to feel valued even if hospitals didn’t consider them a priority.

In addition, telehealth and other high-tech platforms helped doctors raise awareness about the Omicron variant. For example, it was recently revealed that lower back pain could be a symptom of COVID-19. Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first reported Omicron, stated lower back pain could be from the virus attacking the musculoskeletal system. True enough, the Omicron variant attacks the body differently. It is less potent in the lungs but can disguise the disease as a common cold or ordinary upper respiratory infection.

Since the end of the pandemic isn’t clear yet, chronic pain patients and doctors may continue to face limitations throughout the year. But thanks to technology, the limitations can be reduced significantly. The vaccinations, of course, have been life-savers as well. Following health protocols and getting vaccinated will dramatically contribute to making the chronic pain field normal again.

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