Debt and Chronic Pain Can Be Connected. Here’s How to Cope

Study data points to an association between owing money and pain, but you can find support and strategies to manage your debt.
Tiffany Curtis
By Tiffany Curtis 
Edited by Kathy Hinson

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Chronic pain can impact every area of your life — including your finances.

A National Institutes of Health study released in 2023 found about 21% of U.S. adults have chronic pain, while 8% have high-impact chronic pain. Some effects of chronic pain, according to advocacy group Mental Health America, include:

  • Physical and emotional stress.

  • Decreased ability to function at home and at work.

  • Sleep disturbances, fatigue, trouble concentrating and changes in mood.

“Chronic pain is also a cause of chronic stress, so having chronic pain can increase the levels of stress that a person experiences in other areas of their lives,” certified financial therapist Celia Hughes said in an email.

What is chronic pain?

The NIH explains that chronic pain means someone has experienced pain every day or almost every day in the past three months. High-impact chronic pain limits life or work activities every day or almost every day during the past three months.

Some causes of chronic pain include: arthritis or joint pain, back pain or neck pain, headaches and migraines, and muscle pain all over (like with fibromyalgia).

What is the connection between debt and chronic pain?

A June 2021 study in the journal SSM — Population Health found associations between having constant or growing unsecured debt (like credit cards, medical bills or utility bills) from the ages of 28 to 40, and having poor physical health at midlife — including the worsening of chronic pain. The study used data from a survey that tracked the health and debt levels of participants in their teens and early twenties through age 50.

Accumulating debt over time, constantly carrying debt and paying down debt all were associated with having pain that interferes with daily life, compared to those with little to no debt.

In turn, a reduced ability to work may lead to mounting debt. “Any chronic illness, including pain, will affect a person's income through their ability to work and their expenses due to costs of medical care,” Hughes said.

“It is hard to imagine ever being debt-free if you are using your credit cards to pay for medical treatments for a chronic illness,” Hughes said.

How debt affects finances when you have chronic pain

Unsecured debt, especially, can make life harder for people with chronic pain.

“Unsecured debt often comes with higher interest charges," GreenPath advisor Katie Watt said in an email. “Higher interest charges means more of your payment will go toward interest, rather than paying down the balance. As those minimum payments increase, it adds additional strain to the monthly budget.”

Watt previously worked as a health care administrator, where she saw some of the following financial issues arise for patients with chronic pain:

  • Having to pay for expensive procedures.

  • Taking time away from work, which can lead to reduced income.

  • Spending a lot of money to try to get to the root of health issues.

  • Having difficulty sticking to a budget.

“Any chronic ailment, including pain, can cause a sense of hopelessness, and that feeling can carry into other areas of a person's life, including their sense of control regarding their finances,” Hughes said.

Ways to cope with debt when you have chronic pain

Here are some tips to help navigate both financial stress and chronic pain:

1. Negotiate with your creditors and start small

Debt consolidation may help you lower your payments or interest rates, and it's a good idea to try to negotiate with your creditors on bills. “You can call your lenders and try to negotiate a payment plan to pay off the debt more quickly,” Hughes said.

And remember that small steps can make a difference in navigating your debt. When you can, put some extra money towards your debt payments.

Depending on the level of your debt, you may also need to explore other types of debt relief, like debt management plans, debt settlement or possibly filing for bankruptcy.

2. Tap into resources for emotional and financial support

Chronic pain can be isolating, but you don’t have to face it or your financial struggles alone. “Find a community of people who are working on their financial health to know that you're not alone in your stress," Hughes said. “Talking about the stress you're experiencing can help to destigmatize debt.” A financial therapist is another great option for support with the emotional side of debt.

Consider working with a nonprofit credit counseling service, which can connect you to free or low-cost debt counseling and other resources. Also explore resources that connect people with chronic pain and illnesses with medical assistance and other help. The Patient Advocate Foundation and their National Financial Resource Directory is a great place to start looking.

3. Prioritize your health

Yes, tackling debt is important — but your health is essential.

“When you’re managing chronic illness, your priority should be your health,” Watt said. “If you have a chronic illness and debt, then your mental energy is divided between your health and financial security. It is a recipe for frustration and added stress at an already difficult time.”

Doing what you can to care for your physical, mental and emotional health may help to increase your capacity to face your debt and begin to deal with it. Prioritizing your health might look like asking for more support from your community or loved ones, or connecting with organizations that support patients with chronic pain. You can find a list on the American Academy of Pain Medicine's website.

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