Power of Pain: What is Comorbidity?

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

It’s not unusual for pain patients to suffer from two or more chronic conditions – what is known as “comorbidity.”

First defined by Alvan Feinstein in 1970, comorbidity is “any distinct clinical entity that has co-existed or that may occur during the clinical course of a patient who has the index disease under study.” 

To put that in layman’s terms, let’s say you have Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and experience other conditions that coexist with it; such as thoracic outlet syndrome, sleep disorders, depression, severe anxiety, pots, dystonia, arachnoiditis, fibromyalgia, etc.

Just because you have RSD doesn’t necessarily mean you will have any or all of these comorbidities, but they are commonly found to coexist together or in some cases develop as a secondary issue to the RSD.

Here are a few tools patients can use to help with the comorbidities that often come with chronic pain:


Sleep Disorders: To improve your sleep you can do a few things. Cut back on caffeine; stop smoking, and use biofeedback to lower your anxiety and stress. There is a great article on Pain Pathways about ways to improve your sleep.

Dysautonomia/Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS): This is a disorder characterized by orthostatic intolerance (OI) – which makes it hard for a person to stand up. Symptoms include altered vision, anxiety, exercise intolerance, fatigue, headache, heart palpitations (the heart races to compensate for falling blood pressure), difficulty breathing or swallowing, lightheadedness, nausea, neurocognitive deficits such as attention problems, heat sensitivity, sleep problems, sweating, and muscle weakness. 

OI affects more women than men (female-to-male ratio is at least 4:1), and usually people under the age of 35. Up to 97% of those who have chronic fatigue syndrome have been shown to have some form of OI. A good resource for more information on OI can be found at the Dysautonomia Information Network (DINET).

Dystonia:  Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder, in which sustained muscle contractions cause twisting and/or repetitive movements or abnormal postures. A good resource to learn about RSD (CRPS) and Dystonia is a research paper written by Mark Cooper, PhD, Department of Biology, University of Washington. 

Depression/ Anxiety: Over the last 30 years, it has become clear that RSD is not a psychiatric illness. Many people think that it is all in a patient’s head. They are right, but it is organically in our head and not a psychiatric illness. Depression does not cause RSD, but RSD can cause depression.

Situational depression and anxiety should be expected for those of us who have such a severe degree of pain that we cannot work a regular job. Many of us feel that nobody really understands what we are going through or how we could learn skills to smile through it. Anybody in the situation of facing RSD and living it day in and day out is going to be depressed.

Multiple studies have shown that people with disabilities are typically in poorer health and have less access to adequate care. They are also more prone to smoking and engage in fewer physical activities. With less access to proper and timely care for these patients, it is not surprising that their overall health would suffer.

We have to work on our healthcare system and change our access to care so that we are not focused on taking care of patients after they develop a disease. We need to teach preventative care from childhood. That way if a youth grows up and develops a chronic condition, the secondary illnesses and comorbidities may not be as bad as they are for today’s chronic pain patients.

Preventative measures such as better posture, nutrition and better access to timely care will go a long way in helping to slow the development of primary conditions and comorbidity. In the meantime, we need to encourage those with pain diseases to stay well through proper care, being active and connected to the pain community.

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the Power of Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.