For the first time in 40 years, the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) released a new definition of pain.

HR leaders should take note. As the top source of healthcare spending in the United States, pain is a significant challenge for both employees and employers – and the new definition may inspire you to rethink how your company approaches pain in the workplace.

At first glance, the difference between the old and new definition of pain may not seem significant. Starting in 1979, the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defined pain as, “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”

While this definition accurately captures pain associated with an injury that lasts for three months or less – acute pain – it leaves out pain that lingers after an injury has healed, or in the absence of tissue damage.

The updated definition describes pain as: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.”

While the language shift may seem subtle, for those living with persistent pain, it’s a critical adjustment. In many cases, when pain lasts longer than 3-6 months the signals and the way the brain processes pain changes. A combination of both physical and mental factors influence the chronic pain experience, making it an even more complex condition to treat.

“The change is important because it shows that persistent pain is not as simple as most people would think. Sometimes, after an injury the brain continues to trigger a pain response even after tissues in the body have healed,” says Meredith Christiansen, DPT, PhD, clinical research scientist at Fern Health. “As clinicians, we’ve known for years about the importance of multimodal care that addresses the psychological side of pain. Now the official definition of pain has caught up to the gold standard of MSK care.”

Because chronic pain is often invisible, accessing the right treatment can be challenging. The IASP hopes that expanding the definition of pain will improve treatment access for those living with persistent pain. In particular, the new definition highlights the need for both a physical and mental approach to treating pain.

Workplace stress and chronic pain

Emotional stress is one of the psychological factors that can worsen chronic pain. For employers, it’s important to note that workplace stress in particular can have an outsized impact on chronic pain. High workload, lack of control over your job, and low levels of social support are all work-related risks.

Ongoing stress, such as the stress many feel during the COVID-19 pandemic, also raises the risk of developing mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Chronic stress can also make the nervous system more reactive and sensitive to pain. Stimuli that normally wouldn’t feel painful, such as being lightly brushed against, can make someone feel pain.

Both depression and anxiety are also closely associated with chronic pain. In fact, they occur together up to 50% of the time. Since the pandemic, employees have seen a 64% increase in depression and a 47% increase in anxiety.

The depression and anxiety associated with chronic pain can turn into a vicious cycle. Negative thought patterns and beliefs make it more difficult to recover from pain. Fear of movement and avoiding exercise because of it, in particular, can impede recovery.

How employers can help employees with chronic pain

It’s important for employees to retain a sense of independence and social support, which can be even more important if your company has remote workers. Encourage managers to have open conversations with their teams about what they need to feel successful, independent, and supported in their roles.

Technology can also play a part in addressing both chronic pain and mental health challenges in the workplace. Even if your employees are not working remotely, many people continue to limit their interactions because of the pandemic and avoid in-person care, making remote options critical.

Employers are increasingly offering remote talk therapy and other mental health resources to employees. Digital musculoskeletal pain programs can also address both the psychological and physical side of chronic pain. Research shows those whose chronic pain treatment programs include both exercise therapy and psychological components see a longer-lasting and more significant reduction in pain compared to those that only address the physical side.

“If you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or hopeless about your pain, you’re less likely to exercise and be physically active, which are critical to recovery,” says Christiansen. “Employers can help employees with persistent pain by supporting the social, environmental and psychological aspects of pain, too.”

Whatever your preferred solution, the definition of pain isn’t the only thing that’s changed since 1979 – pain treatment doesn’t look the same as it used to, either. The new definition of pain gives employers an opportunity to modernize their approach to pain in the workplace and offer technology solutions that address both the mind and the body for improved outcomes and health cost savings.

Learn how Fern Health can reduce musculoskeletal pain costs at your company.

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