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It’s not unusual for patients at Buffalo Spine and Sports Medicine to be in such pain during a first visit that they break down in tears.

“These are people who are clearly overwhelmed by their situation, and a lot of times they’re just trying to make it to their first appointment,” Stacey Donahue said.

That’s why she’s here.

The specialty medical practice hired Donahue, 45, of Williamsville, a licensed clinical social worker, last summer to help with a variety of patients who understand that strengthening their mental health can go a long way toward strengthening the physical conditions that brought them in the door.

“Now,” Donahue said, “the doctors can say, ‘We have somebody here to help you with this.’ It’s exciting because it’s new, but it’s also an area of mental health that hasn’t always been available. It’s more integrated. It’s like trying to treat the whole person.”

It’s the latest step for a four-doctor practice that takes aim at traumatic injuries and chronic conditions in a variety of ways, including physical therapy and chiropractic. Donahue is part of a new mental health and wellness team that works out of the Williamsville and Orchard Park offices and also includes yoga instructor Brooke Ayoub. It’s a team available to referring doctors from other practices, as well.

“It rounds out the care,” said Dr. Leonard Kaplan, head of the practice. “We don’t have the resources in a doctor-patient visit to address the psychological well-being of a person and the impact of an injury. Stacey can take the time and really, really delve into some of these issues that are keeping people from getting better.”

What are some of the most common concerns people have when they come to see you?

I’m dealing with people who are dealing with anxiety about their condition, dealing with what that’s going to mean for their lives. The future – what’s that going to look like? Another common theme that I deal with are people who have lost their sense of purpose because they’re not doing things they enjoy. They’re not able to work. So they have this real sense of loss, loss of identity. What am I doing with my life? What does it mean now that I can’t work or can’t do these things? It’s kind of like understanding what the meaning of their life is now.

How are you able to help folks?

By helping them learn strategies to help them cope immediately with their symptoms. One of the big focuses here is using what’s called MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. That’s a theoretical treatment developed by Jon Kabot-Zinn Dr at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in the 1970s. It’s basically an integration of meditation, breathing and nonjudgmental perception of the moment. You don’t have to like what is here and now; it just is the here and now. It’s being more in the moment. … That’s all we have to deal with. Really trying to help people not get ahead of themselves – that’s part of it.

Just the breathing and meditation strategies themselves have really been amazing. Sometimes, we’ll do that in session. Beforehand, we’ll talk about ‘What’s your pain level? How are you feeling today?’ and they’ll say, ‘I’m having numbness here, a sharp pain here or pain there, and we’ll go through a meditation, and afterwards I’ll say, ‘What was that like for you? How are you feeling pain-wise?’ And they’ll say, ‘You know, I didn’t really recognize my pain.’ It’s remarkable. They discover they have these resources within themselves to deal with their distress. Sometimes those resources are so preoccupied with what the problem is they don’t recognize them.

But how do they use that in their days?

I try to teach them, ‘You’re not going to use meditation 24/7, but in the moments where you’re feeling really overwhelmed, take a breath, take a moment.’ You can always take a moment, but part of that is really recognizing when they need to do that. What becomes part of the problem is that they get so in their head about everything that’s going on with them, a lot of time they need to step back and say, ‘You know, I really need to just do that for a minute so I could feel a little bit better.’

Talk about the quote from Jon Kabot-Zinn: “Pain is not just a ‘body’ problem; it’s a whole-systems problem.”

A lot of times I’ll tell people that pain is not just from the neck down. Your pain is recognized by your mind. A lot of times, the pain takes up so much emotional space. If you think about the amount of inner resources that any person has to really dedicate to adversity in their lives. … We don’t have infinite amounts of emotional energy to deal with things. So when the pain takes so much, there’s no room for anything else, whether it’s child care or working on your marriage or dealing with your boss, or whatever. Helping people deal with their distress around their pain frees up some emotional space for them, so that they don’t feel so overwhelmed by it, so overwhelmed by their feelings about it, and so overwhelmed by the pain itself.

Do most insurances cover a particular number of visits with you?

Most insurances will cover 20 mental health visits a year. I tend to see people every other week, and I don’t always see them in an ongoing manner. I might see them a couple of times, helping them to acquire some skills for coping with their pain, and then they’re done. Whereas sometimes with people, things are happening in their lives, and those things are barriers to them focusing on their treatment. Then the treatment goes a little longer.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

On the Web: Read more about Donahue’s work and views on painkillers at blogs.buffalonews.com/refresh