Navigating Chronic Pain with an Occupational Therapist

Written by Amanda Hage-Hassan Updated 3 years ago

Everyone has experienced pain at some point in their life, whether it was from a traumatic injury, improper lifting of heavy objects, or sleeping on a poor mattress. The pain response is a normal signal your body uses to communicate that something is wrong. In many cases, pain is a short-lived experience which resolves itself once the injury has healed, but for many pain is an ongoing, reoccurring experience that has detrimental effects on quality of life.

Chronic pain is a reality for nearly 1 in 5 Canadians yet there is a lot of misinformation and stigma around the condition.

Individuals with chronic pain face many obstacles trying to balance their day-to-day activities of going to work/school, housework, personal hygiene/grooming, leisure activities and socializing with friends and family members all while enduring symptoms of pain. However, living with chronic pain doesn’t mean you are bedridden for life! With proper education on various pain management techniques and use of adaptive aids, it is possible to go back to enjoying the activities you love without compromising your health and well-being. 

Prevalence of chronic pain in the Canadian population?

According to the most recent Canadian Pain Task Force, chronic pain is estimated to impact the lives of 1 in 5 Canadians. Out of those living with chronic pain, 50% will live with CP for over 10 years and two-thirds will report that their experience of pain is moderate to severe.

With the growing elderly population, the prevalence of chronic pain is becoming more apparent as 1 in 3 Canadians over the age of 65 will experience CP. This presents a major threat to quality of life as the elderly already face a growing number of complex health issues that significantly impacts their day-to-day functioning. Contrary to popular belief, CP is not exclusive to the geriatric population and is also common in children and adolescents.

Chronic pain in this subset of the population can have detrimental impacts on healthy development that can lead to poor health outcomes later on in life. 

Chronic pain affects people of all ages and backgrounds. Addressing the illness early on can ensure that symptoms are well-managed so that individuals regain their independence and participate in their daily activities. If symptoms remain untreated, it can have a significant impact on a person’s health and well-being. 

Who are Occupational Therapists? 

Occupational therapists (OTs) are registered healthcare professionals that help individuals engage in meaningful activities in the areas of self-care, leisure, and productivity. OTs are university-educated professionals and those practising in BC must be registered with the College of Occupational Therapists of British Columbia (COTBC). The College is a regulatory body that ensures OTs comply with professionals standards for safe and ethical practice. The Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (CAOT) is the national association that provides resources and professional development opportunities for practising OTs across the nation. 

You may wonder how an OT can help someone living with chronic pain? It is important to first define what is meant by chronic pain and how it impacts an individuals quality of life. 

What is chronic pain and how can it impact everyday living? 

Symptoms of chronic pain include joint pain, muscle aches, fatigue, poor sleep, loss of stamina (due to decreased activity), soreness which are caused by a number of conditions...

Chronic pain is pain that persists for longer than three months compared to acute pain which is temporary and resolves as one heals. Symptoms of chronic pain include joint pain, muscle aches, fatigue, poor sleep, loss of stamina (due to decreased activity), soreness which are caused by a number of conditions including arthritis and other joint problems, back pain, muscle strains, fibromyalgia, surgical trauma, and advanced cancer.

Chronic pain not only impacts your physical health, but also has psychosocial implications resulting in emotional distress (anxiety, depression, irritability, frustration), poor sleep, job loss, significant functional loss and inability to engage in everyday activities.

OTs are uniquely trained to apply their knowledge on musculoskeletal conditions, neuroscience, and mental health to evaluate the impact of chronic pain on a client’s ability to engage in meaningful daily activities and provide them with personalized treatment plans to manage their symptoms. 

Why should someone living with chronic pain see an Occupational Therapist as opposed to other healthcare professionals? 

OTs are specialized in helping individuals return to their daily activities, habits, and routines that are often put on hold and become difficult with a condition like chronic pain

It is important to remember that all members of your healthcare team including your family doctor, physiotherapist, psychologist, speech-language pathologist, kinesiologist and others play a fundamental role in managing chronic pain.

With that being said, OTs are specialized in helping individuals return to their daily activities, habits, and routines that are often put on hold and become difficult with a condition like chronic pain. Intense pain flare-ups are a common issue associated with increased physical activity and/or stress. An OT is best equipped to prescribe adaptive aids and suggest pacing strategies to ensure clients return to their daily routines with confidence while preventing and reducing the risk of flare-ups. 

How can an Occupational Therapist help with chronic pain?

OTs can find innovative ways to help clients manage their meaningful everyday activities. Your OT will work closely with you to identify challenges in your daily activities and incorporate strategies into your daily routines and habits to help overcome barriers to independent living.

As OTs, we recognize that each individual has a unique life situation and your treatment plan will be catered to address your specific needs. We have provided an overview of some common treatment approaches but it is important to recognize that no two treatment plans will ever look the same. OTs will often use a combination of treatment approaches to optimize performance and address chronic pain. 

10 Treatments to Address Chronic Pain

  1. Education
    • Safe body mechanics — identify sources of pain and address lifestyle changes, e.g. using the biggest/strongest joints (hands/wrists vs shoulders), alternating sides or use both hands, energy conservation, minimizing stressors that worsen pain symptoms. 
    • Sleep management/hygiene — allows joints to rest and decreases pain, minimized inflammation 
  2. Activity modification 
    • Change the way an activity is performed — e.g. carry child with arms instead of wrist/fingers, avoid repetitive activities
    • Modifications to physical environment (home or workplace)
    • Adaptive equipment/assistive devices
    • Mobility aids — canes, walkers, scooter/wheelchair
  3. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help manage emotional distress 
  4. Use of thermal modalities (cold and heat)
  5. Swelling/edema management 
  6. Splinting
    • Hand/knee orthoses 
  7. Exercise plans 
  8. Targeted strengthening exercises 
  9. Low-stress exercises — swimming, walking, cycling, yoga 
  10. Pacing strategies & scheduling 
    • Teaching client pace their activities throughout the day to avoid fatigue and pain flare-ups  

Why choose Swift Health Occupational Therapists for your chronic pain?

At Swift Health Services, we are committed to improving the health and well-being of our clients who face challenges with chronic pain. All of our OTs have met the required professional competencies to conduct assessments and create personalized treatment plans to manage chronic pain and related symptoms.

Our OTs are masters educated professionals and have completed post-graduate workshops in chronic pain management from the CAOT and Pain BC. Additionally, our OTs are expected to keep up to date with the latest pain research and attend monthly educational forums to enhance their knowledge and skillset.


COTBC: Code of Ethics
About COTBC – College of Occupational Therapists of British Columbia
Chronic Pain in Canada: Laying a Foundation for Action
Chronic Pain Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment

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