Chronic Pain and Mental Health

People are quick to recognize the physical complications associated with chronic pain but may not always consider the toll that chronic pain takes on individual’s mental health as well. Chronic pain is recognized as ongoing pain lasting longer than six months. If the pain was caused in the event of an injury or illness it may continue even after healing from the injury or illness has occurred. Chronic pain is indicative of pain signals remaining active in the nervous system. Muscle tension, aches, stiffness, limited mobility, and inflammation are all physical complications that come with chronic pain. 

Chronic pain is prevalent in 2%-40% of the general population. Mental health disorders are prevalent in 17%-29% of the general population. With the high prevalence of both  conditions, epidemiological studies suggest that there is a bidirectional relationship between chronic pain and mental health. This connection is important to recognize because it is believed to be mediated by shared neural mechanisms. These shared neural mechanisms may require the use of targeted pharmacological and behavioral interventions that aim to treat both the chronic pain and mental health. 

One study in particular followed a series of admissions to a comprehensive pain center where extensive psychiatric evaluations showed that half of the men and two-thirds of the women in the study suffered from affective disorders. Anxiety was present in 59% of the men and 66% of the women. Depression and anxiety are among the highest ranking mental health disorders in patients with chronic pain. 

How to Stay Optimistic

Although chronic pain can drastically affect everyday life, there are ways to stay positive while living with this condition. First, focus on food. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that works to regulate sleep, balance mood, and inhibit pain. 95% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract and thrives off of good gut bacteria. In addition, studies show that the risk of depression is 25%-35% lower in those who follow a traditional diet of fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, and fish. Avoiding diets that are high in refined sugars, processed foods, dairy, and meat, is one way to help boost your mood as well as nourish your body to aid in healing. 

Another way to stay optimistic when dealing with chronic pain is to find ways to be involved with something. For some people, chronic pain can cause limited mobility in the joints, inhibiting them from doing activities that, at one time, were part of their normal routine. Join a small group, find ways to volunteer, or consider getting connected to local organizations. Doing good for others always helps you to feel better and gives you a sense of community. 

Self Reflection and Getting Help

Something that is so important for individuals with or without pain to prioritize is quieting the mind. Spend time practicing meditation, mindfulness, prayer, and/or relaxation exercises. Taking time to silence the world around you can improve your state of mind and help you feel calm. 

Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you are struggling with feelings of depression, extreme frustration, sadness, anxiety, or nervousness, seek help. Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness and may be the key to help you not only feel better, but see the positives in your life instead of the daunting chronic pain. There are many forms of therapy and counseling that do not include prescription medications if that’s something you are trying to avoid. Your doctor should be able to help you get connected with the type of help that you need.