The Relationship Between Pain and Psychological Distress During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Is Social Technology Use Protective?

Pain Med. 2022 Feb 1;23(2):280-287. doi: 10.1093/pm/pnab262.


Objectives: The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shelter-in-place orders have profoundly changed the everyday social environment. This study examines the relationship between pain and psychological distress (depression, anxiety, and loneliness) among U.S. adults ages 54 and older during the pandemic. We also test whether use of technology for social purposes moderates the association between pain severity and psychological distress.

Methods: Using cross-sectional data on 1,014 adults ages 54 and older (pain free, n = 637; mild pain, n = 106; moderate pain, n = 227; and severe pain, n = 64) from the 2020 Health and Retirement Study COVID-19 Project (Early, Version 1.0), we conducted regression analyses to test the association between pain severity and psychological outcomes and to assess social technology use frequency as a moderator.

Results: Compared with their pain-free peers, participants with mild-to-moderate pain reported more depressive symptoms and greater loneliness; those with severe pain reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Social technology use was associated with lower levels of depression and loneliness. However, interaction analyses show that social technology use predicted an increase in depression for individuals with pain but a decrease in depression among pain-free individuals. For anxiety and loneliness, no significant effects of social technology use were observed.

Conclusion: Older adults with pain are at high risk of depression, anxiety, and loneliness during the pandemic. Although social technologies have become a common alternative to face-to-face interactions during the COVID-19 crisis, and overall they can provide mental health benefits, our results suggest that social technologies can be detrimental to psychological well-being among people with pain. These findings can inform technology-based interventions aiming to promote well-being among older adults with pain.

Keywords: Anxiety; COVID-19; Depression; Loneliness; Technology Use for Social Purpose.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Anxiety / epidemiology
  • COVID-19*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain / epidemiology
  • Pandemics
  • Psychological Distress*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Technology