The Link Between Chronic Pain And Depression

By Marisa Ramiccio. May 7th 2016

Asking whether depression causes pain or if pain causes depression is like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. The fact is, pain and depression fuel each other, creating a complicated cycle that’s difficult to break out of. If you feel like you’ve gotten caught up in this cycle recently, read on to find out how to break the link between your chronic pain and depression.

How Pain Leads To Depression…

There’s probably no worse feeling than the feeling of pain. And when pain refuses to go away, it can be more than frustrating. It can be downright depressing. Harvard researchers report that people who suffer from chronic pain are three times more likely to develop psychiatric symptoms such as mood or anxiety disorders.

It’s not just the constant feeling of pain that causes depression. Here are the other ways in which pain can get you down:

  • It immobilizes – When you are in pain, it can be difficult to move around. The more aches and pains you feel, the less active you’re likely to be. When you are less active, you may feel guilty or sad about the fact that you can’t do more than what you can do, and that feeling can contribute to depression.
  • It isolates – If you can’t move around easily, chances are you aren’t going out as much as you used to. You may not be seeing as much of your friends and family, which can lead to feelings of depression.
  • Pain affects your mood and thoughts – When you’re in pain, it can be difficult for your brain to focus on anything else. It can make you feel irritable and put you in a bad mood. Those negative feelings can easily manifest into depression.
  • Pain can lead to more pain – Chronic pain can lead to sleepless nights, stress and fatigue, which all contribute to depression.

…And How Depression Leads To Pain

It’s easy to see how pain can cause depression. But depression causing pain sounds like a twisted magic trick. If only it were. Harvard researchers say that those who are depressed are also three times more likely to develop physical symptoms of pain. Some theories suggest that depression and anxiety are converted into pain, hence the physical symptoms.

The most common physical symptom that those with depression develop is migraine headaches. Studies show that those who have a history of depression are more likely to develop a migraine headache, and those who suffer from migraine headaches are more likely to develop depression.

Depression can also have a bearing on pain in other ways such as:

  • It can intensify pain
  • It can make pain difficult to treat

Could I Be Caught In This Cycle?

If you’ve been suffering from chronic pain, you may be suffering from depression without realizing it. If these symptoms sound familiar, it is likely that you are depressed:

  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Feelings of anxiousness, guilt and sadness
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions and falling asleep
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Ongoing headaches, digestive problems and other aches and pains

If you have fibromyalgia, a condition that causes chronic pain in certain tender points of the body, you may also be caught in this cycle. Studies show that people who have fibromyalgia are likely to be depressed or develop other mental illnesses.

Treatment And Ways To Cope

Although the cycle of pain and depression is difficult to break, it can be done. There are multiple ways to both treat and help you deal with your symptoms including:

  • Talking to a doctor – If you suffer from depression and are worried about developing chronic pain, talk to a physician about ways to avoid it, particularly if you are already starting to display the symptoms of physical pain.
  • Speaking with a psychologist – Seeking psychological counseling may help you deal with your depression. If you aren’t comfortable speaking with a psychologist, talk to a friend or family member. Studies show that involving your family in your recovery can be beneficial.
  • Stay active – Try not to avoid spending time with loved ones or engaging in activities because you are fearful of the pain. Instead, speak with a physician about the amount and types of activities you can and cannot do. (See The Effects Of Exercise On Depression)
  • Reduce the stress in your life – You can do this by identifying your stress triggers and by practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and muscle relaxation.
  • Medication – Studies show that antidepressants can be just as effective at stopping pain. However, you should consult with your physician before taking any medication.

Your recovery is likely to be more effective, and quicker, if you combine some of these treatments. You may even want to try all of them to find out which ones work best for you. The main goal is just to get on the road to recovery because the earlier you start treatment, the earlier you will heal.


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