If you have chronic pain, you probably have been seen by at least a few of the following: physicians, nurses, physical therapists, dietitians, and psychologists. Have you ever been to or considered occupational therapy? An occupational therapist can be an invaluable member to add to your care team – this blog post will tell you why.
What is Occupational Therapy?
Unlike what the name hints at, occupational therapy doesn't necessarily have anything to do with jobs. In the world of OT, occupations are the things you have to and want to do. Using an example day in my life, my occupations include getting myself up and ready for the day, taking care of my dog, preparing meals, communicating with friends and family, and going to the grocery store.
Occupational therapy practitioners work with clients on modifying the environment or task/occupation so the client can be the most successful. Occupational therapists do not diagnose or prescribe but instead facilitate skills and offer strategies to live a "functional life." A "functional life" is defined by the client as everyone has different ideals of what their day looks like.
Why I Chose OT
When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at 12, I had no idea what occupational therapy was. Unfortunately, I never received occupational therapy when I was struggling to function with debilitating pain and fatigue. When I learned about occupational therapy's purpose – a focus on function – I knew I found the career for me. My passion for guiding others through chronic illness led me to apply for graduate school, complete a thesis all about managing fibromyalgia, and into my career as an occupational therapist.
During my final Level II fieldwork experience, I was placed in my dream setting... an outpatient pain clinic! I loved being able to combine my passion for helping others, personal experience, and learned knowledge of neuroscience, kinesiology, and mental health. As a fellow pain warrior, it wasn't easy being around pain all the time, but seeing other warriors take control back of their lives... that's my why.
What OT Can Do for Chronic Pain
Because chronic pain impacts every aspect of a person's life, a holistic approach is key. Occupational therapists prioritize the goals of the client, and the focus of treatment is rooted in the client's goals. Common treatments occupational therapists use to address chronic pain include:
Education. As mentioned in previous posts, understanding pain and what's going on in your body through pain neuroscience education has been shown to reduce pain symptoms.
Lifestyle-based treatments. There is growing evidence to support the use of lifestyle-based treatments to address chronic pain. These treatments can include training and education related to social adjustment, body mechanics, activity pacing, energy conservation, self-advocacy, diet and exercise, coping strategies, using adaptive equipment, and compensatory strategies.
Movement. Due to fear of making pain worse, many with chronic pain move less and have become physically deconditioned. Movement is necessary for the regulation of the nervous system. An occupational therapist can guide clients to incorporate gentle exercise into their routine in a safe way.
Biofeedback is a helpful tool used by some occupational therapists to provide insight into how your body's muscle tension and heart rate variability and how you can use feedback to adjust your positioning and breathing. Biofeedback is helpful for chronic pain, migraines, stress management, anxiety, and depression.
If you think it would be helpful to be referred to an occupational therapist, speak with your physician. Just like physicians, not all occupational therapists are experts in the complexities of chronic pain. It might take time to find the right fit for you.
I've created a free step-by-step guide on how to pace the things you've been avoiding (like exercising, getting together with friends, taking a long walk) without flaring!
Driscoll, M., & Baker, N. A. (2016). Breaking the cycle: Occupational therapy’s role in chronic pain management. OT Practice, 21(19), 8–14
Hesselstrand, M., Samuelsson, K., & Liedberg, G. (2015). Occupational therapy interventions in chronic pain--a systematic review. Occupational therapy international, 22(4), 183–194.
Simon, A. U., & Collins, C. E. R. (2017). Lifestyle Redesign® for chronic pain management: A retrospective clinical efficacy study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 71, 7104190040p1–7104190040p7.
Fibromyalgia is not a "one size fits all" diagnosis. What works for some doesn't work for others. The information provided is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. Should you have any health-related questions, please consult your physician or other health care provider promptly.
Hannah is an occupational therapist, fellow fibromyalgia warrior, and co-founder of Fight Against Fibro. We're on a mission for a life with less stress and more energy.