A COVID-19 Virtual Workforce in Pain

Analysis shows a substantial increase in the proportion of virtual care visits for a wide range of painful and debilitating conditions during COVID-19

While there has been a great deal of attention paid to the psychologic effects of COVID-19, data suggests that makeshift work and school home set-ups, combined with people working many more hours sitting in front of computers, as well as changes in exercise routines and other physical activity, triggered an increase in a wide range of aches and pains.

We turned to our data to gain perspective on the toll the past year’s excessively virtual pandemic lifestyle has taken on the nation’s physical health. We conducted an analysis of more than 1 million diagnoses made by our network providers from telehealth visits on the MDLIVE platform between March 1, 2020 and February 28, 2021, compared to the prior year. The diagnoses included visits for both pediatric and adult patients.

The analysis revealed substantial increases during the pandemic in the share of patient diagnoses in three categories.

1) Muscular, Spinal, Nerve and Tendon Problems

The percentage of diagnoses in the analysis for muscular and spinal conditions of the back and neck doubled over the last year compared to the pre-pandemic year, as COVID-19 dramatically changed the way people work and play.

  • While the year-over-year increase was equal among females and males, the number of visits for back and neck pain was 30% higher for females than for males during the pandemic.

  • The data from the analysis also showed that visits for muscle, nerve and tendon problems of the arm and hand saw the biggest proportional increase among the conditions analyzed, up 150%, although the number of such visits was relatively small.

2) Headaches, Migraines, Eye Strain and Vision Problems

Digital usage and screen time surged in 2020, a trend that may be manifesting in increased vision issues, headaches and migraines during the pandemic. 

  • According to the analysis, the share of visits for eye conditions such as eye strain, eye fatigue and blurred vision rose 33% during the analysis period, while headaches increased by 60% and migraines increased 75%.
  • Females suffered from these conditions more than males, having over twice as many visits for those complaints in the past year.

3) Earaches and Hearing Loss

In another reflection of the impact of the pandemic lifestyle, we saw a 20% jump in the share of patients with ear pain and hearing loss. Extensive use of headphones, earbuds and other such devices has been associated with increased risk of ear and auditory problems, as devices inserted into the ear canal can increase wax build-up and cause earaches and infections.

The good news is that individuals chose to consult with a doctor rather than delay care or ignore the issues. In addition to taking steps to minimize these types of conditions, such as taking frequent breaks, stepping away from screens and keyboards, engaging in some regular physical activity like taking a walk or doing some stretching, it is important for plan sponsors to encourage their members to seek care early after the pain starts or injury occurs. Delaying treatment for even the simplest of injuries or mildest conditions can result in long-term issues that require a higher level of care and longer recovery time for patients when they are treated, and ultimately, a higher cost of care for the member and their plan sponsor.

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