Chronic pain can be one of the most debilitating conditions in daily life. With chronic pain contributing an estimated $560 billion annually in direct medical costs, it’s clear that new interventions are needed.
Chronic pain goes beyond the pain itself. The mental stress and biologic psychological effects of pain can be just as severe as the pain itself.
In fact, people with chronic pain are three times more likely to develop depression.
If you’re suffering from chronic pain and have noticed an increase in irritability, mood fluctuations, and other psychological issues, you’re not crazy.
To learn more about how pain impacts your mood on a molecular level, keep on reading.
The Psychological Effects of Pain on the Brain
The psychological impact of pain is intense. In the state of chronic pain, the mind is altered.
Pain and the Stress Response
Pain acts as a survival signal for the brain: it signals the brain to prepare for fight or flight. In response, the brain changes physically and chemically. This is coupled with changes in the body like increased heart rate, prioritization of blood flow to the muscles, and other stress responses. While the body usually resolves these changes and returns to normal after temporary pain, chronic pain presents a different issue.
Chronic, persistent pain prolongs these systemic and chemical brain changes, leading to real psychological changes. Over time, these can impact brain function, resulting in changes in behavior.
Moreover, this chronic stress is not limited to psychological effects. Chronic pain and the resulting prolonged stress response can lead to heart issues, gastrointestinal changes, and more.
Chronic Pain and Mental Health
The responsive chemical and physical changes of the brain can have serious impacts on specific functions of the brain. This deeply affects the mental health of chronic pain patients.
Pain and Emotions
Pain is inextricably linked to emotions. In fact, physical pain and emotional pain exist on almost the same circuitry of the nervous system, with common brain systems involved.
For this reason, it’s not surprising that the presence of chronic pain is often associated with emotional changes.
Chronic Pain and Anxiety
Anxiety associated with chronic pain is real.
As a stressor, the natural response is to escape or flee the pain. However, with chronic pain, this is often not possible.
Even in times where the pain is not present, chronic pain sufferers may experience anxiety surrounding the return of the pain. This anxiety can be crippling and detrimental to the quality of life.
Chronic Pain and Depression
The link between chronic pain and depression is strong, but it’s not well understood by psychologists.
Some researchers believe this depression as a result of pain may be programmed into our wiring evolutionally. Contextually, it makes sense. Withdrawing from society provides the body with a peaceful environment that is needed to heal. It also creates a “safe place” away from stressors and possible threats.
However, chronic pain makes this difficult because the threat is internal, not external. The result can be chronic, nagging depression that seemingly has no end.
Depression-like symptoms may also evolve as a perception of loss of control. This is called adjustment disorder and results when an individual fails to adapt or cope with a perceived stressor like chronic pain.
However, depression is not necessarily a guaranteed progression in chronic pain. It is impacted by a number of factors, including genetics.
Chronic Pain and Awareness of the Body
Activation of complex brain systems as a result of chronic pain may increase awareness of pain and decrease pain tolerance. Additionally, because pain signals the fight or flight system, heightened sensitivity to other “threat” cues may result.
This makes sense in the context of survival, where consistent perceived “threats” would increase awareness out of protection for self.
Chronic Pain and Cognition
Cognition is a complex function of the brain that involves acquiring understanding through sensory input, thought, and experience. It also helps to regulate emotion. Cognition is one of the extremely important functions that can be impacted by pain.
Scientific evidence supports the notion that pain negatively affects cognitive ability. While temporary pain doesn’t impact cognition much, persistent pain can cause changes in the brain systems that control cognitive function.
Relief From the Effects of Chronic Pain
Thankfully, there are remedies available for chronic pain and its psychological effects. By taking a combined approach, chronic pain sufferers can find true relief both physically and mentally.
Evidence-Based Treatments for the Psychological Effects of Chronic Pain
The brain is neuroplastic, meaning it can be changed. This is a hopeful prospect for chronic pain patients who have suffered physical and chemical changes in the brain.
There are certain treatments that are therapeutic to specific structures of the brain. Because chronic pain can impact many structures of the brain, a combination of therapies might be needed.
Some of these evidence-based therapies are yoga, goal-setting, mindfulness training, sleep hygiene and routine, among other behavioral therapies.
Many chronic pain patients that are recovering will need behavioral treatments in conjunction with physical therapies.
There Is a Way Out
If you are suffering from chronic pain and its psychological effects, it can feel as if there is no end to your pain.
And no, you’re not going bonkers. Experiencing depression, mood fluctuations, anxiety, altered perceptions and cognition, and emotional instability, are all commonly associated with chronic pain. This is a result of the perceived stress that impacts the body on a physical and chemical level.
With this innate response comes distinct changes in the physiology and chemical balance of the brain. This means chronic pain’s effects reach far beyond the pain itself and can translate to severely impacted social, environmental, and personal adaptations.
Fortunately, there are treatments that are proven to be effective. These therapies focus on changing brain structures that could have been physically impacted by chronic pain. Treating the root cause through conservative treatment and interventional pain management procedures, you can finally be free from chronic pain and its downstream effects.
If you are located in the Augusta, Georgia area, Augusta Pain Center can help treat you. We combine physical treatment with behavioral therapies for total, complete relief from chronic pain. Contact us to book an appointment.