New York State Medical Treatment Guidelines for Non-Acute Pain in workers compensation patients

The guidelines provided by the New York State Workers Compensation Board offer fundamental principles for addressing non-acute pain. These directives are designed to assist healthcare professionals in identifying appropriate approaches to managing non-acute pain within the context of comprehensive care.

Healthcare professionals with expertise in dealing with non-acute pain can rely on the guidance outlined by the Workers Compensation Board to make well-informed decisions about the most suitable therapeutic methods for their patients.

It is crucial to emphasize that these principles are not meant to replace clinical judgment or professional expertise. The management of non-acute pain should involve collaboration between the healthcare provider and the patient, considering individual factors and preferences.


  • Pain, defined by the International Association for the Study of Pain, refers to an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience often associated with actual or potential tissue damage. Acute pain typically arises from a specific event like trauma or surgery and serves a protective function. As pain persists, biopsychosocial factors become increasingly relevant.
  • Non-acute pain, a biopsychosocial phenomenon, occurs when pain endures beyond the expected healing period, leading to functional limitations. A diagnosis of non-acute pain is considered when pain persists despite treatment, extends beyond anticipated recovery time, or causes significant functional impairment.



  • The traditional biomedical approach to pain focuses solely on biological factors, assuming a direct link between pathophysiology and symptoms. While effective for certain conditions, it often falls short in managing persistent pain. In contrast, the biopsychosocial model recognizes pain as a multifaceted interplay of biological, psychological, and social elements, emphasizing patient-centered care and holistic assessment. This approach acknowledges that pain results from a combination of physiological processes, psychological factors, cultural beliefs, and environmental influences.


Medical versus Self-Management Model

  • Patients naturally desire to be rid of their non-acute pain entirely. However, it’s crucial to understand that non-acute pain requires management rather than complete eradication. Unlike the medical model, where the physician bears primary responsibility, the self-management approach places the onus on the individual experiencing non-acute pain. Educating patients about this difference and promoting self-management is vital to prevent persistent and unrealistic hopes for a cure that may not be attainable.


  • Unrealistic expectations of a cure, often unintentionally fostered by healthcare providers, can lead to repeated disappointments, prolonged recovery periods, and unnecessary disability and expenses. Excessive focus on tests and treatments may keep the patient fixated on their pain rather than on recovery. Additionally, delays in appointments or difficulty contacting physicians can exacerbate feelings of hopelessness and worsen the patient’s pain.


  • A common clinical pitfall arises from overemphasis on findings from tests like imaging studies, which may lack clinical significance. For instance, instead of reassuring a patient that an MRI shows normal wear and tear and surgery isn’t necessary, conveying a negative message like “Your back is a mess, and there’s nothing we can do” can perpetuate the belief of incurable pain. To mitigate this, the Medical Treatment Guidelines mandate specific time frames for diagnostic imaging to avoid unnecessary anxiety in patients.


  • Certain statements made by healthcare providers can also amplify a patient’s pain perception, such as promising a fix, suggesting more tests, or proposing distant specialists. An alternative approach involves explaining to the patient that pain doesn’t necessarily indicate further damage and that increased activity might aid in pain management. Emphasizing effective pain management rather than complete elimination can be more realistic and beneficial.


Delayed Recovery

  • The transition from acute to non-acute pain is a critical phase for injured workers, as prolonged absence from work can lead to adverse medical, familial, financial, and psychological consequences, potentially worsening pain complaints. When a physician observes that the problem persists beyond the expected tissue healing time, they should reassess the working diagnosis and treatment plan, while also identifying and addressing psychosocial risk factors.


Importance of Early Intervention

  • Identifying patients at risk of delayed recovery as soon as possible is crucial. Factors aiding in the identification of such patients include:
    • Lack of response to proven conservative therapies for specific diagnoses.
    • Significant psychosocial factors hindering recovery.
    • Prolonged absence from work or loss of employment.
    • Previous history of delayed recovery or rehabilitation.
    • Absence of employer support to accommodate patient needs.
    • History of childhood abuse (verbal, physical, mental).
  • Among these factors, the most predictive of delayed recovery is the amount of time lost from work.


Functional Restoration Approach to Non-Acute Pain Management

  • Pain typically resolves on its own, and many patients require minimal or no treatment. For those with persistent or complex pain, a comprehensive, individualized, function-oriented, and goal-specific multidisciplinary approach to pain management has proven most effective. The ultimate goal of all functional restoration approaches is independent self-management.


  • The principles and process of functional restoration, whether applied by a physician or an interdisciplinary team, can address a broad spectrum of non-acute conditions and serve as the foundation for medical rehabilitation and disability management.


Pain Outcomes and Endpoints

  • Pain is inherently subjective and cannot be objectively measured or validated. Therefore, documenting the impact of pain on functionality is crucial. The physician should periodically review treatment progress and adjust the management plan based on the patient’s response, including decreased pain, reduced analgesic use, and improved function. Fluctuations in the patient’s condition are expected, necessitating adjustments to treatment.


  • Even after reaching maximum medical improvement status, injured workers are entitled to appropriate medical care.



  • While biological factors contribute to pain perception, psychological and environmental factors are equally significant. Recognizing these factors enables physicians to better understand and treat recently injured patients, identify those at risk, and refer them to appropriate resources. A comprehensive patient assessment is essential to determine the most suitable approach.


  • Therapy for non-acute pain varies from single-modality approaches for straightforward cases to comprehensive interdisciplinary care for more complex cases. Integrated therapeutic components, including pharmacologic, interventional, psychological, and physical interventions, have been found most effective. All therapies aim at functional restoration rather than mere pain elimination, with treatment efficacy assessed based on functional improvement, ultimately improving the patient’s quality of life.


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