It is easy to assume that chronic pain is a mere physical problem that can be treated with common therapies. Sometimes this is true. But for many chronic pain patients, what they feel goes beyond physical symptoms. Chronic pain actually effects their mental health as well.
Pain's ability to affect mental health is one of the many reasons we recommend patients seek out pain clinics when their primary care physicians run out of options. Pain clinics are staffed by pain management doctors with specialized training. They understand the finer details of chronic pain that often escape clinicians in other specialties.
Living with chronic pain isn't easy. The discomfort alone can lead to all sorts of feelings that could eventually lead to depression and anxiety. Believe it or not, up to 50% of all chronic pain patients also show symptoms of depression and anxiety.
This in no way suggests that a chronic pain sufferer is guaranteed to develop mental health issues. Nonetheless, the correlation between the two is undeniable. The good news is that proper treatment can reduce the risk that a patient will go on to develop mental health problems.
When depression and anxiety are not problems for a particular patient, the risk of other mental health concerns is still present. For example, pain is a known stress inducer. We all get stressed out when something hurts. Imagine the amount of stress experienced by someone who lives with chronic pain every single day.
We already know that stress can lead to increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and other physical changes in the body. Those changes all have an effect on the chemicals present in the brain. Over the long term, an imbalance in brain chemicals can alter how the brain actually functions, leading to psychological changes.
If you know someone who lives with chronic pain, you know that their emotions can be up and down. This is a normal reaction to pain. What you might not know is that the brain signals involved in expressing both physical and emotional pain are present in the same parts of the nervous system. In other words, physical and emotional pain signals work the same neighborhood in the brain.
Someone who lives with chronic pain may demonstrate mood swings. She can be happy and smiling one minute and very unhappy the next. It is not unusual for a chronic pain patient to find no enjoyment in something anyone else would be truly excited about.
If all these things aren't enough, chronic pain can even affect a person's cognition. If you are not sure what cognition is, it is the ability to make sense of the world around you by combining your senses with thoughts and experiences. Using simpler language, cognition is the ability to understand what is going on and think things through.
Persistent pain can inhibit cognition for a couple of reasons, the first being that the body and brain are so wrapped up in dealing with the pain that there isn't enough energy left for cognition. The second reason is that persistent pain can actually change how the brain works – to the extent that cognition is impaired.
In closing, we do not mention any of this to frighten you. Instead, we want to encourage you to visit KindlyMD or another local pain clinic for help managing your chronic pain. Pain doesn't have to dominate your life. It certainly doesn't have to lead you down the path of mental health issues.