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Managing Chronic Pain During the Pandemic

By Anuradha Rao-Patel | June 23, 2020 | 5 min read | Industry Perspectives

COVID-19 has amplified the impact of chronic pain, which impacts 20 percent of Americans and is the leading cause of disability in the world. For a number of reasons, the pandemic is making it more challenging for people dealing with chronic pain to receive the care they need in order to function.

1. COVID-19 can aggravate acute pain.

The chills and muscle pains that may accompany a coronavirus infection can aggravate pain syndromes, especially those that affect the muscles and bones. Excessive coughing may also worsen pain in the neck, back or face.

We know that patients’ physical and mental health go hand-in-hand. Many of us are struggling with the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. Combined with drastic changes to normal routines and possible unemployment or loss of income, our current situation is a perfect storm for stress. Research has found many overlaps between pain and stress, causing heightened anxiety around the pandemic to intensify pain.

2. Some methods of pain management can suppress the immune system.

There is a complex relationship between chronic pain and the immune system. Two types of medication—opioids and corticosteroids—are frequently used to treat acute symptoms and underlying conditions causing chronic pain.

However, opioids have the potential to suppress the body’s immune response. This makes patients who take these drugs to manage their pain more vulnerable to infections. Corticosteroid drugs, used to treat conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, can also alter patients’ immune response and make them more susceptible to illness.

Further controlled clinical studies are needed to learn more about the interactions between these drugs and the immune system. For now, physicians will need to discuss the risks and benefits of any potential therapies in the context of a global pandemic with their patients.

3. The risk factors for COVID-19 and chronic pain overlap.

It’s a sad truth that the burden of disease often weighs heaviest on our most vulnerable populations. As we’ve learned over the past few months, people with the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 are:

  • People aged 65 and older
  • People living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities
  • People with compromised immune systems
  • People of any age with underlying health conditions like cardiovascular disease, chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder (COPD), cancer or liver/kidney disease

Unfortunately, many of these risk factors are consistent with those for chronic pain. Older individuals, women, and those living in lower income or rural areas have a higher prevalence of chronic pain.

Many chronic pain patients can be considered to have compromised immune systems because of existing conditions or current treatment plans. Ultimately, this means those with pain are more likely to contract COVID-19.

Supporting our members

Prioritizing our physical and mental health has never been more important. That’s even more true for those dealing with chronic pain. To make it easier for our members to connect with health care providers while adhering to social distancing recommendations during the COVID-19 crisis, we’re covering medical consultations by video or phone the same as in-person visits.

To learn more about how Blue Cross NC is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic on behalf of North Carolina, please visit You can also find more information on the CDC coronavirus website.