Occupational Therapy in Chronic Pain Care


Written by by Ian Cheok (Occupational Therapist).
18th February, 2020.

If you suffer from persistent pain, you are enduring more than your fair share of obstacles. In addition to continual discomfort, they may also confront a lot of frustration.  Persistent pain takes a major toll on your ability to do the things that are important to you daily, such as cooking a meal, having a shower, looking after your family, going to work and going out with your friends. Left unaddressed, it can cause you to lose your independence, leaving you little or no alternative but to rely on others to do the things you used to be able to do on your own.

Medical researchers now understand that various elements are simultaneously at play in someone with persistent pain. These elements can be physical (e.g. your body, issues in your tissues, infection, inflammation), mental (e.g. beliefs, fears, worries, anxieties) and environmental (e.g. heat/cold, pressure, chemical exposure, pathogens). Researchers have even discovered that our social and cultural environment can affect how we experience and cope with pain. Pain is complex, and to manage it successfully, we will have to understand its many elements.

Occupational therapy is the use of purposeful activities to help people improve their function and independence. Occupational therapists (OTs) are qualified health professionals who help people achieve good health and wellbeing using specific activities. OTs have a detailed understanding of the interrelationship between the complex systems of the human body and the external environment. This is helpful when dealing with persistent pain. 

Occupational therapist (OTs) can help people to cope with and manage their pain, so they can continue to carry out the activities most important to them. For instance, some activities can stimulate pain, especially if they require more effort or range of motion than you have available. OTs can help to find strategies to make the activity less taxing or find ways to modify the environment make the activity more doable. As OTs are very familiar with all kinds of adaptive devices, they may suggest a device that will make the activity easier. Sometimes it’s also a question of breaking down the activity into manageable bits, with rest breaks in between, that will allow the activity to be accomplished without triggering pain.

When you have persistent pain, you often experience a great deal of fatigue because of constantly tolerating with the pain, difficulty sleeping, or being less active. OTs can suggest ways of structuring your day to manage fatigue. Alternatively, they may be able to suggest sleeping positions that will allow you to get a better night’s rest. In addition, an OT may also be able to help you find the right activities in your community that meets your needs to overcome fatigue and feel more refreshed. Helping you engage in such activities is also a wonderful way to make sure your family and friends can participate along with you.

Persistent pain also causes stress, which can affect your emotional and mental wellbeing. OTs can show clients how to redirect their pain so that it interferes less in their daily lives. They may achieve this by teaching relaxation and visualization activities that will make it easier for you to cope with the feelings of loss, anger and other emotional challenges of dealing with pain every day. Finally, there is still a lot of stigma associated with having persistent pain. It’s an invisible disability and, as such, the public may have difficulty understanding and empathizing. OTs pride themselves on their role as advocates. As such, OTs usually have a good knowledge of community resources as well as understanding of the way that the healthcare systems work. An OT may be able to help you navigate the system and find the right resource to help you. If you have a question about how to get more support, you can talk to an occupational therapist to get some clever ideas.

Occupational Therapy in Chronic Pain Care

COVID-19 Update

We hope you are safe and well, and coping with all the changes to our lives that have occurred due to COVID-19.  We would like to let you know that we are here to support you, and are continuing to provide occupational therapy services. We have temporarily ceased any clinic-based consultations in order to reduce any risk to our clients and our staff. All of our staff are now currently working from home.  Our preference is to provide OT services as much as possible via telehealth.  This means either telephone or online consultations.  This is the best way to still provide services and remove any risk of infection.  We understand however, that for some of our clients, this is neither suitable or possible. Where telehealth is not appropriate, and an occupational therapy service is essential, we are continuing to see clients in their homes or in the community. We do this with all the physical distancing and hygiene precautions in place.
We will contact you prior to your appointment to see if it is possible for us to provide your service via telehealth. If it is not possible and we are planning to come to your home, please let us know if you or anyone in your household are unwell with any symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever, cough or sore throat.
We care very much about our clients and staff and we would like to reassure you that we are doing our best to keep surfaces and our hands clean and will maintain a safe physical distance during home visits.  This means we will not shake hands when we greet you, and will only use direct hands on contact when essential.

If you are well and we come to see you at home or in the community, please:

  • Maintain a 1.5 metre physical distance where possible.
  • Wash or sanitise your hands before and after appointments where possible.
  • If you need to cough or sneeze, please use a tissue and dispose of it or cover your mouth and nose with your elbow.
  • Refrain from having additional family members/carers with you if possible as the less people in contact with everyone the better.
We know that at this time some of our clients may be finding it particularly difficult with increased isolation, anxiety or a reduction in their usual supports and services.  We would like you to know that if this applies to you, please reach out to us to ask for help, and we will try our best to help you access the support you need.

We sincerely appreciate your understanding of the above. If you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact us.  

Best Wishes
The Lifeworks Occupational Therapy Team