Taking a holistic approach to the psychology of pain management

A conversation with Employee Benefit News

5 min read

Chronic pain is typically thought of as physical, but it can have debilitating psychological effects as well. Whether a person is experiencing pain for the first time, chronic pain, or a pain flare-up, the body’s resulting fight-or-flight response can contribute to emotional tension. When stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline flood the circulatory system, it can cause inflammation in the body, perpetuating the pain/stress cycle.

Kaia Health’s Mark Liber, vice president of strategic partnerships, and Amy Tsoumas, a physical therapist focused on empowering people with chronic conditions to improve their quality of life, recently sat down with Lynn Gresham, freelance writer and former editor-in-chief for Employee Benefit News, to discuss how Kaia Health provides a whole-body approach to treating the psychological effects of musculoskeletal (MSK) pain. During the webinar, “Taking a Holistic Approach to the Psychology of Pain Management,” the trio discussed how guided meditation, breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques can help address mental health alongside physical pain.

With 1 in 2 people experiencing MSK conditions and 1 in 3 people with chronic MSK conditions experiencing anxiety or depression, it’s important that organizations focus on prioritizing health and wellness benefits that provide comprehensive, whole-body care for its employees.

How MSK pain and comorbidities impact employers

Up to 85% of people with chronic pain reported symptoms of depression, which is a leading comorbidity in people with chronic pain.1 A further 45% of people with chronic pain experience symptoms of anxiety and 64% experience insomnia. The overlap of mental health and MSK pain is among the highest in healthcare. Kaia Health addresses both the physical and mental aspects of treating MSK pain to help people improve their health and ease the financial burden for employers.

A study from Deloitte found that people with chronic pain cost their employers more than $1,600 per afflicted employee per month.2 If a person with chronic pain experiences symptoms of depression or anxiety, costs go up by 34% to about $2,100 per afflicted member per month. When serious and persistent mental illnesses like major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and paranoia are involved, the cost per month goes up even more to close to $2,700 per afflicted employee. The cost of treatment for the overlap of mental health symptoms and MSK pain is among the highest in healthcare. Costs associated with MSK spend when comorbidities are present can be staggering. For example, in an organization employing 40,000 people, 25% can be expected to have MSK-related claims, with 35% of those employees experiencing a mental health-related comorbidity. Depending on the severity of the mental health diagnosis, this could cost the employer $90 to $113 million in healthcare spend. The numbers add up quickly, but they can be managed when MSK care and mental health are addressed simultaneously.

How Kaia Health addresses both mind and body

The Kaia Health app is a digital pain management program that brings clinically proven exercise therapy for MSK conditions to members via their smartphones or tablets. Because of the importance of comprehensive strategy to care, Kaia uses a multi-modal approach to pain management – physical movement, relaxation, and education – to ensure that both the body and the mind are addressed together.

Personalized therapy programs that target users’ main area of concern are designed to tackle the physical aspects of pain. With 24/7 access to the app, Kaia’s motion analysis technology, which analyzes and corrects members’ form in real time to keep them engaged, and unlimited access to coaches, Kaia’s members stay engaged, motivated, supported, throughout their journey.

Mindfulness exercises, progressive muscle relaxation sessions, and breathing techniques offered in the app are geared towards addressing some of the psychological aspects of pain and decreasing stress and tension.

Kaia Health believes that helping people learn about the nature of the pain they’re experiencing can help them better understand how to manage their condition and developing long-term habits for better MSK health and productivity. By providing access to educational content on key pain topics like the causes of pain, common treatment options, stress management, ergonomics, lifestyle modifications, and nutrition, Kaia provides its members with the tools they need to understand their pain.

Kaia’s certified health coaches, provide one-on-one support, monitor progress, offer encouragement, and help members build healthy and lasting habits. Health coaches help members stay on track on their pain-management journey and motivate them to make the most of all three pillars of the program.

Real Kaia Health outcomes

A randomized controlled trial with more than 1,200 people found that Kaia Health drove a 33% pain decrease compared with conventional physical therapy, which is significant as the minimal clinically identifiable difference is 30%.3 Interestingly, that 33% was higher when looking at the member cohort in this study that has a more high-risk condition. For example, patients with acute pain had a 43% decrease, which demonstrates Kaia Health can scale and deliver an even better quality of care in a higher-risk risk pool. This study also found that people with anxiety showed 115% improvement over the control group, depression 117% improvement over control group and stress a full 200% improvement over the control group. In the control group, however, the levels of anxiety, depression and stress went up over the course of the study – demonstrating the need for a more comprehensive, multifaceted approach to care.

Pain is so much more than its physical manifestation, and the proven benefits of treating a person’s physical injury in tandem with their psychological symptoms can improve patient outcomes and reduce costs.4 Reach out to Kaia Health to learn more about our successful treatment programs for your employees.

Download and watch the recorded webinar with Employee Benefit News here.


[1] Kroenke K;Outcalt S;Krebs E;Bair MJ;Wu J;Chumbler N;Yu Z; “Association between Anxiety, Health-Related Quality of Life and Functional Impairment in Primary Care Patients with Chronic Pain.” General hospital psychiatry. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Accessed April 6, 2022. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23639186/.

[2] “Milliman Report Integrated Medical and Behavioral …” Accessed April 6, 2022. https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/milliman-report-integrated-medical-and-behavioral-healthcare-2018.pdf?sfvrsn=426e572c_2.

[3] Priebe, Janosch A, Katharina K Haas, Leida F Moreno Sanchez, Karin Schoefmann, Daniel A Utpadel-Fischler, Paul Stockert, Reinhard Thoma, et al. “Digital Treatment of Back Pain versus Standard of Care: The Cluster-Ra: JPR.” Journal of Pain Research. Dove Press, July 17, 2020. https://www.dovepress.com/digital-treatment-of-back-pain-versus-standard-of-care-the-cluster-ran-peer-reviewed-article-JPR.

[4] “Largest Randomized Controlled Trial in the Digital MSK Industry Validates That Kaia Health Cuts Costs by 80%.” Kaia Health US. Accessed April 6, 2022. https://kaiahealth.com/newsroom/press-releases/cost-savings-rtc/.

Further Reading