Most people are familiar with in-person approaches to treating musculoskeletal (MSK) pain. Many adults with MSK pain seek care first from primary care healthcare providers, who often prescribe medications. They may also refer patients to other in-person services such as a visit to see a physical therapist or orthopedist for injections or a surgical recommendation.
However, the experience of pain often is more complicated and requires a more holistic, longer-term approach to effectively manage symptoms, especially when pain becomes persistent.
Because persistent pain is complex and personal, research shows that an interdisciplinary team is best equipped to effectively manage symptoms and improve function. At Fern Health, our digital musculoskeletal platform brings together personalized exercise therapy and brain training in a patient-centered format so people in pain can easily access longer-term, clinically-validated care. To succeed in this type of program, people with persistent pain need support. That’s where Fern Health Coaches come in.
A recent study investigated the impact health coaching can have on persistent pain. Health coaching has already shown success in motivating behavior change for other chronic conditions that benefit from a multi-disciplinary approach, like diabetes. The researchers suspected that health coaching would also be beneficial for people with chronic pain.
Behavior change is also a critical part of recovery for people with persistent pain. For example, beliefs like fear of movement and catastrophizing pain can keep patients from exercising and living their normal lives, which can contribute to other symptoms and conditions like depression. Health coaches intervene using techniques like pain neuroscience education and motivational interviewing to assist patients in making behavior changes needed to feel better and get back to doing the things they love to do.
How Fern Health uses health coaching
In the study, the researchers found that health coaching was associated with clinically-meaningful reductions in long-term pain intensity. It was also associated with improved psychological pain-related functioning and physical functioning.
At Fern Health, our health coaches use similar motivational and educational techniques outlined in the research study to engage with our members.
To start, coaches set personalized goals with members to help make sure the program is designed for them and relevant to the outcomes they want to achieve. Then, coaches use techniques such as motivational interviewing to support behavioral change. Motivational interviewing is a technique designed by psychologists that helps clients address and explore mixed feelings around making change.
“By using motivational interviewing techniques, I was able to identify a member’s barrier to completing exercise therapy as part of the Fern program. By working with the member to overcome an objection of ‘not enough time’ we were able to determine that the member’s goal was to have a successful, comfortable season of cricket,” says Fern Health Coach Jim White. “We helped him reframe the Fern workouts as a warm up before his weekly matches, which helped him complete our exercise program and have a pain-free cricket match.”
Other techniques our health coaches use include pain neuroscience education, cognitive behavioral therapy, self determination theory, and the transtheoretical model of change – all research-backed techniques that are proven to help people reframe their thinking and break habits. On average, Fern Health members interact with their health coach multiple times every week through in-app messaging or through phone calls.
Health coaching is one of the most powerful ways to support the biological, psychological and social approach to pain management. We’re proud of our health coaches here at Fern Health, and the personalized, empathetic support they offer our members – and we’re pleased to see outside research validating their work, too.