What to Do About Pain When You Can’t See a Doctor

Picture it: You're in pain from arthritis or another chronic condition, but you can’t go see your doctor. Maybe it’s a holiday weekend. Maybe you’re trapped at home because of COVID-19.

You don’t have to suffer. There are plenty of ways to treat your pain when you can’t get to a doctor’s office:

And in an emergency, you can almost always get in-person care.

Telemedicine Can Help

Telemedicine took off as COVID-19 spread around the world. Instead of an in-person visit to your doctor's office, you have the same type of visit over your phone or computer. During a virtual visit, your doctor can provide:

  • Advice about your condition
  • Medication refills
  • Details about the risks and benefits of treatments

If you have new pain, new soreness, or new concerns, your doctor may be able to do a virtual "exam." Your doctor’s careful questions and instructions can help find the cause of your pain.

Restart Physical Therapy

If you have RA, OA, or another long-lasting painful condition, you’ve probably been prescribed physical therapy (PT) at some point. It may be a good idea to restart those exercises at home if you can’t see your doctor right now. (Just check with your doctor first.) The benefits of PT include better movement and less pain.

If you've already been doing PT, you may be able to get support and advice from a physical therapist. Remote options include:

  • E-visits: You and your PT communicate (not in real time) through a portal where you can also upload patient handouts.
  • Virtual check-ins: These are brief, real-time conversations with your PT (probably without video).
  • Remote evaluation: You send the PT a picture or video of your moves. Your PT will review and offer feedback, but not in real time.

Over-the-Counter Medications

If you take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen for your chronic pain, you may worry about reports that these could worsen COVID-19. But health officials say there's no evidence they increase your chances of getting the coronavirus. They also say there's no need to stop taking them if they help you.

If you're concerned about taking NSAIDs, call your doctor's office.

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Simple, Fast Pain Relief

These approaches don’t require a doctor or physical therapist. Studies show they work for several types of pain.

Capsaicin. Capsaicin cream is available at drugstores and may take your pain down a notch. One review of several studies found applying capsaicin to the skin may be safe and effective for OA pain in the hand, knee, hip, and shoulder.

Heat. A hot compress, heating pad, or a warm bath can make you feel better, especially when you use it regularly. Research shows that “thermal therapy” reduces both pain and tender points in fibromyalgia. Ask your doctor if heat could be a smart home remedy for your pain.

Enough sleep. Pain can keep you up at night, and lack of sleep can make you feel worse -- especially when you have RA. Try these strategies to get better sleep, which may help your pain feel less intense.

  • Stick to a sleep schedule.
  • Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual.
  • Don’t nap in the afternoon.
  • Avoid a large evening meal.
  • Don’t use electronics for an hour before bed.

Exercise. Gentle exercise helps ease joint pain while it boosts strength and flexibility. Even if you can't get to the gym, take walks or try a streaming yoga class. (Check with your doctor first if you don’t exercise already). Working out also helps you sleep better.

Seek Social Support

Some people lean on others to cope with chronic pain. Others keep their suffering to themselves. Is one way “better” than another?

The short answer is yes. You may feel physically better when you lean on your support network. Here are a few research findings that support this idea:

  • Holding hands helps cut down pain. It lowers your heart rate and causes changes in areas of your brain that process threats and pain.
  • Older adults who feel they don't have much support from friends and loved ones feel more pain after injuries.
  • While pain and depression are common in older adults with arthritis, support from others can improve both conditions.

Don’t Rush to the Emergency Room

Around 12% of emergency room (ER) visits happen because doctors’ offices aren’t open -- and patients need or want to be seen right away. Yet the ER isn’t well-equipped to manage long-lasting (chronic) pain. Your pain may be through the roof because of several things, including:

If you feel you must go to the ER during the COVID-19 outbreak, be sure to call ahead first. Always bring information about your condition to make your visit as short and useful as possible. Make a list of:

  • All your health conditions
  • Any recent lab tests you've had
  • Medications you're taking
  • Treatments you want or need to avoid

Have this information written down ahead of time so it’s easily available during pain emergencies.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 27, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Using Telehealth to Care for Patients During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Cleveland Clinic: “A Pain Management Physician on Adapting Practices During the Pandemic.”

American Physical Therapy Association: “Telehealth Modalities That PTs and PTAs Can Use During the Public Health Emergency.”

Rheumatologia Clinica: “Topical capsaicin for pain in osteoarthritis.”

Pain Research and Management: Effects of Physical-Agent Pain Relief Modalities for Fibromyalgia Patients,” “Chronic Pain in the Emergency Department.”

Arthritis Foundation: “Rheumatoid Arthritis and Sleep.”

Sleep Foundation: “Healthy Sleep Tips.”

Journal of Pain: “The Social Regulation of Pain.”

Clinical Journal of Pain : “Social Support and Pain Outcomes After Trauma Exposure Among Older Adults.”

Aging & Mental Health : “Social Support and Cognitive Functioning as Resources for Elderly Persons with Chronic Arthritis Pain.”

National Center for Health Statistics: “Reasons for Emergency Room Use Among U.S. Adults

Aged 18–64: National Health Interview Survey, 2013 and 2014.”

Medscape: "Are Warnings Against NSAIDS in COVID-19 Warranted?"

Mayo Clinic: "Exercise helps ease arthritis pain and stiffness."

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