Chronic pain is complicated. In terms of research and treatment, the topic of pain is pursued by many disciplines, including psychologists. Even more confounding is the way that psychological and physiological factors seem to feed into one another, contributing further to the pain’s chronicity. When people injure themselves, they have an accompanying emotional response to the pain. Alternatively, anyone who has ever suffered a severe loss of disappointment will be familiar with the physical pain felt in response to the emotional event. While huge strides are being made in an effort to better understand and treat chronic pain, the complexity and confounding variables of chronic pain still make it difficult to treat.
Is Chronic Pain All In My Head?
Significant overlaps in emotional and physical pain are subject to even more than anecdotal evidence. For instance, researchers have even found that acetaminophen may be helpful in suppressing some responses to social rejection. It bears mentioning that this point is not to encourage you to begin regularly taking Tylenol to alleviate hurt feelings (always discuss long-term medication regimens with a physician and be aware that even over the counter medication can have scary side effects if taken to excess), but rather to underscore the similarities and relatedness of physical and physiological pain.
In another example, during World War II, Dr. Harry Beecher, an Army medic treating injured soldiers, ran out of morphine. But instead of telling his patients that, he instead gave them a saline solution/ Forty percent of the patients receiving saline reported that their pain was relieved, anyway—the placebo effect.
Further complicating matters is the extremely subjective nature of pain. Some people are just better at coping with pain than others, making it difficult to assess where on the spectrum of seriousness pain lands. Is the person seriously injured, or are they just not good with pain?
Alternatively, is the patient who is seemingly fine actually seriously injured and just really tough? Experienced medical professionals are good at looking for signs to help them make a correct diagnosis quickly, but the fact of the matter is, if your chronic pain is interfering with your life, it is imperative that you get help, even if you do not have a specific injury that you can point to.
The chronic pain/depression positive feedback loop
One could easily imagine a scenario where a person suffering from a very real physical injury or illness that results in chronic pain, say, for instance, in the back or joints, might cause that individual to suffer from feelings of depression or anger at their condition. They are no longer able to participate in the activities they once loved, they may be limited in their ability to work and even have trouble sleeping.
These are just a few of the factors attributed to the link between chronic pain and major depression. But the links do not end there.
So in the scenario outlined above, the individual suffering from the illness or injury becomes depressed. The result of this is likely to be magnified pain, making pain feel more intense and making areas of the body that previously felt fine take on the chronic pain of their own. As time passes, the individual’s condition will continue to get worse without intervention. This is the crossroads.
Unfortunately, a significant majority of people suffering from chronic pain will go undiagnosed (partially because pain can be hard to describe and especially difficult to effectively treat for medical professionals who do not specialize in pain management), leading to a tragic number of people failing to meet their optimal potential for quality of life.
While the scenario may seem hopeless—like the individual is stuck in a positive feedback loop between chronic pain and depression—the fact of the matter is that, with proper medical intervention, many people suffering from this condition can find the help they need to break the cycle. By finding a way to address one of the variables, either chronic pain or depression, patients gradually see improvements on the other front as well. So if the individual in our example scenario were to find an effective treatment for their chronic pain that then allowed them to sleep well, get back to work and begin participating again in activities that their pain had been keeping them from, it stands to reason (and science) that their depression will improve as well.
If you are one of the millions of Americans suffering from chronic pain, speak up! Contact us today for a consultation. Our experienced staff is committed to addressing all of your concerns and working collaboratively with you to find a way to maximize your quality of life and to alleviate your chronic pain.