Posted by: jedwardswright | June 3, 2011

Can Depression Cause Physical Pain?

Persistent despair and emotional distress are now recognized as a treatable medical condition, Major Depressive Order (MDD), which is caused by an imbalance of chemicals that affect the brain. Most people recognize that profound sadness is the main symptom of depression, but what about other physical effects of this illness? If depression is the result of a biochemical problem, can that physical illness create physical pain in our bodies? Am I being a hypochondriac if I complain of aches and soreness to my doctor?

Actually, MDD can be the source of many physical symptoms, including pain. Research has revealed that the source of both depression and pain are in the same area of the brain.[i] Depression and chronic pain travel through some of the same nerve pathways and share certain neurotransmitters, which are the brain chemicals that communicate between nerves.[ii]  This means that when those neurotransmitters fail to regulate moods, that it is common for the regulation of pain to be affected as well.[iii]  Fortunately, this connection means that there are certain antidepressants that can also reduce the perception of pain.[iv]

Insomnia is often a symptom of MDD, and a lack of sleep is a known contributor to pain.[v] It has been estimated that up to 75% of patients with depression only tell their doctors about physical symptoms, such as pain.[vi]

People with depression are up to three times more likely to develop chronic pain. [vii]Pain may even be the first symptom of depression.[viii]

In addition, depression can magnify pain caused by other medical problems.  The differences in our brain chemistry can heighten our sensitivity to pain, and even make our bodies hurt in more places than before.[ix]

Fibromyalgia, characterized by chronic muscle pain and extremely tender pressure points without apparent cause, is closely associated with depression. Brains scans of fibro sufferers have revealed overactive pain centers , which suggests that the abnormal brain chemistry which causes fibromyalgia may affect both sensitivity to mood disorders and painful stimuli.[x]

It is not unusual for MDD to be accompanied by backaches, headaches, and/or joint or chest pain. Migraines are particularly common among depressed people. Arthritis can also be aggravated by depression.


As well as antidepressants and pain medication, both depression and chronic pain can be helped by psychotherapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has proven especially effective.  By changing thought patterns and providing coping strategies, individuals learn better ways to manage their symptoms.[xi]

There are some clinics that specialize in the treatment of chronic pain. Ask your doctor whether there is such a facility near you.

Regular exercise is usually recommended to patients with MDD, but constant pain is discouraging, if not downright disabling. By choosing activities like aquatic fitness, where buoyancy counteracts stress on muscles and joints, and tai chi, which is based on slow, controlled movement, many folks suffering from chronic pain have managed to become more active. Simple yoga can gently stretch tight muscles. Adjusting the pace and intensity of other physical tasks may provide more options in the pursuit of greater activity levels. Keep moving as much as you comfortably can to benefit from the natural mood-enhancing effects of exercise.

Other non-medical methods such as aqua-therapy, therapeutic massage, acupuncture, relaxation techniques, biofeedback and meditation have been helpful for some people. Physical therapy may be advised to alleviate some types of painful symptoms, as well as to improve mobility and muscle tone.

Both pain and depression tend to isolate people, but it is important to maintain social contact with others. There may be support groups in your community that can offer invaluable assistance when you need it most. Join a club or place of worship as an incentive to leave your home and be involved with the rest of the world. If none of these options are possible, look for an online forum that matches your needs or interests, and stay plugged in that way.

You are not imagining it. Clinical depression can aggravate or even cause physical pain.

Don’t allow this fact to burden or immobilize you, but instead, pursue treatment and lifestyle changes that can improve your condition. Even small steps forward can produce considerable relief.

Resources Consulted


  1. […] Since depression itself can be a source of physical pain, it is apparent that chronic pain and clinical depression can reinforce each other and create even more pain and depression. […]

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