Understanding the Links Between Chronic Pain and Mental Health

Chronic pain

Chronic pain is a growing problem for many people. It’s defined as pain that stays consistent and affects you for at least 12 weeks. 

Chronic pain can come from different underlying causes. For example, if you’re in a car accident, you may develop chronic pain. It can also come from health issues ranging from fibromyalgia to cancer. 

There are many links between chronic pain and mental health too, and the following are some of the things to know about both. 

Understanding Chronic Pain

If you’re injured, for example, in a car accident, then pain signals move from the place that you injured on your body and travel up your spinal cord. They then reach your brain. 

Over time, the pain becomes less severe, or at least it should, because the injury is healing. 

Chronic pain isn’t the same. 

When you’re experiencing chronic pain, the pain signals are still being sent to your brain even though your injury has healed. 

Chronic pain can go on for weeks or years. 

When someone deals with chronic pain, it can limit their mobility and functionality. 

Chronic pain can occur anywhere, and it can come and go or be steady. It may feel dull or sharp and can cause aching or burning. 

It’s estimated that over 1.5 billion people have chronic pain around the world, and it’s the main cause of long-term disability in the U.S. Around 100 million people are affected in the U.S. alone. 

Specific causes of chronic pain outside of specific injuries that are common include:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Endometriosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

There are different types of treatments for chronic pain. There are prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Physical therapy can be a good option to reduce pain and improve mobility. 

Certain medical procedures may be available such as a nerve block or electrical stimulation. 

Lifestyle changes are also often recommended to help with chronic pain. 

For example, yoga, stretching, and regular exercise may help some people. 

Meditation, massage, and psychotherapy can help sometimes too. 

The Relationship Between Pain and Anxiety and Depression

People who suffer from depression tend to have more long-lasting and severe pain than other people, and the same is sometimes true of anxiety. 

There is a significant overlap between the mental health conditions of anxiety and depression, and chronic pain. 

There’s evidence that psychiatric disorders can both contribute to the intensity of the pain someone experiences and also raise their risk of disability. 

Doctors believe chronic pain is an emotional and physical condition. It’s complex and as such it can affect behavior, mood, and thoughts. 

Chronic pain, especially when accompanied by anxiety or depression, is associated with a lower quality of life. 

Specific Chronic Pain Conditions Linked to Anxiety and Depression

The list isn’t exhaustive, but the following are some of the specific conditions that are known to affect both pain and mental health. 

Chronic migraines:

This condition means someone has migraines 15 or more days out of the month for more than three months. Chronic migraines often occur at the same time as anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. 

Arthritis:

When someone has arthritis, it’s an inflammatory disorder affecting one or more joints and the pain can be disabling. There are more than 100 specific types of arthritis, and among the most common are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis. Mood and anxiety disorders occur at higher rates in people with arthritis compared to people without it. There are many effects on quality of life because of limited movement, pain and joint impairment. Arthritis can prevent people from engaging in activities they enjoy, and that can also contribute to the development of depression. 

Fibromyalgia:

There’s still a lot we don’t know about this chronic disorder. Researchers believe it occurs because the spinal cord and brain process pain signals differently. Fibromyalgia can affect energy, general health, social functioning, and mental health. In women with fibromyalgia, the risk of anxiety disorders is five times higher than in the general population. 

Multiple Sclerosis:

MS is one of the most common chronic disabling conditions among younger people. It’s nerve damage that changes and disrupts the communication occurring between your brain and body. Depression and anxiety are also more common in people with MS than people without. Generalized anxiety disorder is the most frequently seen type of anxiety, and panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder are also thought to be more common among people with MS. There’s another condition called pseudobulbar affect or PBA which sometimes happens when people have MS. This condition means that someone laughs or cries excessively in inappropriate situations. 

Back or neck pain:

There was a study of adults with depression and chronic pain. In that research, people with headaches and backaches were most at risk of having major depression. 

Treating Chronic Pain and Mental Health Conditions

When there is a combination of chronic pain and a mental health condition that someone is dealing with, diagnosing it and treating it can be difficult. Pain is subjective and it can be hard for someone to accurately describe what they’re experiencing to their health care provider. 

Sometimes, the same therapies can be beneficial for both conditions. 

For example, antidepressant medications may help with depression and pain because they impact similar chemical messengers found in the brain. 

Talk therapy or psychotherapy can also be helpful for pain and depression or anxiety, as can stress-reduction techniques such as journaling and physical activity. 

When someone participates in a pain rehab program, there may be a holistic approach taken to treating them, and that can include psychiatric care. 

It’s often hard to know whether chronic pain causes mental health conditions directly or there are indirect effects that link the two. 

Regardless, if you are dealing with chronic pain and mental health symptoms, it’s important to talk about both with your health care provider because both need to be well-managed in order for you to fully feel like you’re improving.

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Susan Melony