Understanding The Link: Chronic Pain & Mental Health

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It is estimated that up to 50% of people who experience chronic pain also struggle with a mental health condition, with depression and anxiety disorders being the most common.

This is unsurprising. Chronic pain presents a number of challenges that those without chronic pain do not experience. Interestingly, this issue is common to a wide range of sufferers. From those with congenital conditions that have required treatment from birth to those who experienced an injury that required the help of a personal injury lawyer and rehabilitation at a later point in life; the impact of physical conditions on mental health is relatively consistent.

This suggests there is no point at which someone adapts to physical pain and is able to ensure it does not impact their mental health. If your body hurts, it hurts, and there’s no point at which you can “get used to it” – pain is pain, physical pain begets mental pain, and – perhaps somewhat surprisingly…

Mental pain begets physical pain, too

This is an interesting topic, and one for which there is no definitive scientific conclusion – however, it does appear that there is a link. This may mean that people with chronic pain conditions may experience a worsening of their pain not due to the physical condition itself, but instead as a symptom of poor mental health.

Confused? You’re far from alone; there is relatively little understanding of how mental and emotional pain are able to take this physical toll, outside of general acceptance that it does happen. However, if you have a chronic pain condition and your muscles are aching, you’ll almost certainly assume there is a physical cause rather than a mental one.

So what does this mean for you?

We know that:

  • There is a 50% chance that a person with a chronic pain condition will also experience issues with depression or anxiety.
  • It is possible that a mental health condition will actually worsen the discomfort a person with chronic pain experiences…
  • … but they may assume the escalation of symptoms is due to physical, rather than mental or emotional, distress.

Combating these confusing links is incredibly difficult, but if you have a chronic pain condition, the most important aspect to keep in mind is suspicion. If you experience a new pain, or a worsening of existing symptoms, avoid assuming the issue is entirely physical in nature. If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, then there is every chance the new, or worsened, physical pain actually has a mental cause.

Secondly, talk to your primary care physician about your mental health if you find you are struggling. You do not have to accept mental health issues as part and parcel of life with chronic pain. If your doctor overlooks your mental health – an all-too-common occurrence for many people – then seek a second opinion. You should never feel that you just have to accept mental health problems as a side-effect of physical issues, especially if there is a chance that your mental health is causing, or exacerbating, physical distress.

In conclusion

The link between mental and physical health is far stronger than many of us assume. It’s important that you, and your doctors, understand the way that mental health can influence your physical well-being and vice versa. The human body is an incredibly complex unit, and while we separate health into categories – mental, physical, emotional – the body simply doesn’t work like that. All areas of health overlap with one another, and if you are struggling with one, then it’s well worth discussing the others as part of your overall treatment and condition management.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding The Link: Chronic Pain & Mental Health

  1. Raegan says:

    This was a really interesting post! I haven’t looked at the stats, but I wonder how many people suffer from chronic pain? I imagine the number is quite staggering so paired with your stats, this leads me to believe that there are so many more people suffering from mental health issues than most of us are aware of. I’m a firm believer that I don’t know what everyone I meet is going through in their life therefore I need to be more aware of how I treat people no matter how I am feeling myself. Thank you for the reminder!

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