The past decade has been a difficult one in the U.S. The Great Recession caused financial uncertainty that lingers still for some people even as the overall financial picture of the country brightens. During this time, researchers noticed changes in two trends: an increase in uneasiness about people’s financial security and a rise in reports of chronic pain. They wondered if the two could be directly linked. The answer is yes: less money means more pain.

Financial instability means more pain

As if struggling to make ends meet were not enough, the lack of money or an uncertain financial future is directly linked to an increase in complaints of pain, both chronic and acute.

Researcher and lead study author Eileen Chou of the University of Virginia summarized the distressing findings in no uncertain terms, noting:

“Overall, our findings reveal that it physically hurts to be economically insecure. Results from six studies establish that economic insecurity produces physical pain, reduces pain tolerance, and predicts over-the-counter painkiller consumption.”

The study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, looked at data from nearly 34,000 individuals and found that households with two unemployed adults spent 20% more on over-the-counter painkillers than households with working adults.

Another study found that when participants were asked to think about a time of financial insecurity they recalled twice the amount of pain as participants who were questioned about a period of economic stability.

Economic uncertainty also decreased ability to tolerate pain and resulted in more pain. Research participants thinking about looking for a job in an unstable job market were unable to keep their hands in a bucket of ice water as long as participants who reflected on a secure and promising job market.

These studies highlight the connection between a person’s understanding of their economic status and its real consequences on daily life, including pain. Dr. Chou and colleagues noted this in their conclusions, saying:

“Individuals’ subjective interpretation of their own economic security has crucial consequences above and beyond those of objective economic status. By showing that physical pain has roots in economic insecurity and feelings of lack of control, the current findings offer hope for short-circuiting the downward spiral initiated by economic insecurity and producing a new, positive cycle of well-being and pain-free experience.”

What you can do

A lower income doesn’t automatically mean more pain, but a lower socioeconomic status can mean less access to care, poorer outcomes after surgery, and undertreatment of pain. The cost of treatment can also cause a greater impact on those with a fixed or unstable income, potentially preventing those in pain from seeking appropriate care. If pain leads to missed work, this can increase financial insecurity exponentially.

Knowing that there is a strong link between less money and more pain, here are five steps to take right now to improve your financial security.

1. Think positive

In times of economic uncertainty, one of the most important steps to take is to attempt to control how you view your situation. When you aren’t sure when your next paycheck is coming, that lack of control can be terrifying and have consequences beyond the financial. This feeling can work against you when it comes to managing stress, with stress leading to increased pain.

Take some time to practice deep breathing and mindfulness meditation as you begin to improve your financial security. This may not relieve your underlying condition or eliminate pain altogether, but it can help you to have a more positive outlook as you implement other changes.

2. Update your insurance

If you feel like you may not be adequately insured for treatment of pain, talk to your human resources department about making changes. If you are insured through the Affordable Care Act, visiting either their website or your state’s health exchange to see what is covered may set your mind at ease.

If you don’t currently have health insurance, visit your state’s health exchange to see if you qualify to start coverage in the middle of the year instead of waiting for open enrollment in November of each year. If you have lost health insurance, had changes to income, gotten married or divorced, or have other special circumstances, you may qualify for new insurance any time of year. Depending on your economic status, you may also be entitled to lower insurance rates.

Medicaid has also expanded in many different states. If your income is low, you may also qualify for free insurance at any time of year.

3. Explore telework options

One of the biggest threats to financial security in chronic pain is losing a job because of missed work. Where possible, explore the idea of working from home when needed. If you are currently unemployed, freelancing from home may be a great option. Writing, graphic design, and website design are just three hot freelance options that can be done with an internet connection from the comfort of your couch.

4. Talk to a financial advisor

Financial advisors aren’t just for the 1%. Money management and planning is not taught in school, and many parents are just as clueless as their kids. Starting with your bank, ask if there is someone who can help look honestly at your financial situation and offer guidance on saving and protecting yourself from financial crisis.

5. Develop a “disaster plan”

If you are currently stable and in a good place, use this time to develop a strategy if things change. What can you give up? What can’t you live without? Being very clear about what you actually need to survive can help ease your mind if your income changes.

Money woes may lead to more pain, but it doesn’t have to. What steps can you take right now to improve your financial security?


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