Sunday, 20 Sep 2020

'I've never experienced anything so hard': Lockdown's impact on chronic pain

Lynsey Searle has lived with fibromyalgia, a condition causing widespread pain and extreme tiredness, for around five years. The counsellor, 42, has regular massages and chiropractic treatment but fears this option may soon be taken away.

East Lancashire, where she lives, remains under strict local lockdown after a surge in coronavirus cases. She said: ‘My chiropractor is based in Blackburn, so I’m worried that local lockdowns will get worse and she’ll have to close again. Then I would be in a lot more pain as I wouldn’t get that relief.

‘I was thinking about going to yoga as a way to strengthen my body without inflicting too much pain, but obviously lockdown stopped that,’ she added. ‘I realise that I could have done online yoga, but I want to be with someone in person who understands my condition.’

Almost half of the UK’s adult population is affected by chronic pain – meaning that around 28 million adults live with pain that has lasted for three months or longer, a 2016 study found.

Nikki Lennox, from Hitchin in Hertfordshire, fractured her foot and damaged ligaments while running in April. Four months on and still in pain, Nikki relies on virtual physio appointments and painkillers to manage.

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‘I’ve been taking so many painkillers for so long,’ she said. ‘It was worrying me, the amount of painkillers I’ve had to take.’

Rajesh Munglani, an honorary consultant in pain medicine at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, said the use of painkillers – and risk of addiction – has increased during lockdown.

Dr Munglani, who is also a council member for the British Pain Society, told ‘The overall effect of Covid-19 is that it has increased pain and suffering, and increased the use of analgesics.

‘People will take more, they will ask for more, because they’re sitting around. If you’re out and about you get the support services, you’ve got your friends, and you can be distracted – but once you’re on your own, it’s a very lonely existence.’

He added that many of the drugs commonly used to treat chronic pain are addictive, and some – such as codeine – can lead to overdoses and death.

‘All the drugs we have are good in the short term, but bad in the long term,’ he explained. ‘The increased use of addictive medication is understandable, but it’s dangerous.’

Health experts have long expressed concerns about the risks of addiction that come with prolonged opioid use, while a study by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recently found that painkillers can do ‘more harm than good’ and shouldn’t be prescribed to treat chronic pain.

But it is not just the physical pain that has escalated during lockdown. Both Lynsey and Nikki say they have struggled with the emotional impact of their situation.

Lynsey has trained to be a counsellor for the past four years but it abruptly stopped when the pandemic saw the UK told to stay at home.

She said: ‘Our college wasn’t very proactive in giving us online content or Zoom calls so that withdrawal of emotional support was hard.’

Nikki said she struggled when her mother – who is over 70 and therefore in the shielding group – was unable to provide the childcare support she usually would.

‘It was really hard to keep positive when I’m struggling as a single parent, struggling because I can’t run, can’t get food, haven’t got the support of my family, haven’t got the support of my mother,’ Nikki said. ‘I’ve never experienced anything quite so hard.’

Dr Munglani said anxiety and depression – which have also increased during lockdown – can worsen the symptoms of those living with chronic pain. Not being able to access NHS services put on hold during the pandemic has exacerbated the situation.

He said: ‘People just can’t access the assessment and treatment of pain – and that they don’t see people also increases their anxiety levels dramatically.’

The women have found ways to adapt during lockdown in order to ease their symptoms. Nikki – who uses exercise to improve her mental health – has recently taken up open water swimming.

She said: ‘I have to have a lot of wadding and bandages on my foot but it’s just amazing. It’s my saviour.’

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