Posted by: jedwardswright | June 14, 2011

Can Physical Pain Cause Depression?

Pain is a good thing, even though it may not feel that way, because it’s nature’s alarm system. When something in my body hurts, it is my cue to take action before further damage is done.  If I burn my fingers on the stove, I automatically pull my hand away – because I feel pain. If my joints ache all the time, I book an appointment with my doctor.  If I have terrible stomach pain, I go to the emergency room for help.

Sometimes, just like a security system, pain doesn’t turn off when it is supposed to do so. Like the annoying ringing of an alarm that won’t quit, pain may continue even when there is no longer any immediate danger, or after we have been alerted that something is wrong but can do nothing more about it. Chronic pain is pain that continues even when it no longer serves a useful purpose.

Being exposed to chronic pain literally changes who we are. Neurochemicals start to increase our overall sensitivity to pain, perhaps in an effort to convince our bodies that something really is wrong. Pain may spread to other parts of our bodies as a result.[i]

Since pain messages and mood changes are communicated throughout the body by the same neurotransmitters,[ii] from the same portion of our brains, chemical depletion produced by chronic pain may also result in depression. Different estimates suggest that from 25% to 60% of people suffering from chronic pain also have clinical depression, and many others also experience a negative effect on their moods.

So aside from all of the other legitimate reasons that being in constant pain might cause us to feel down, like not being able to participate in favorite activities or isolation because of reduced mobility; there is also a tendency for some who regularly experience pain to also have Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), an additional physical condition.

Pain may also cause insomnia or interrupted sleep, which then leads to fatigue, which can contribute to depression.[iii] If unmanageable pain causes us to be less active, then a lack of exercise can worsen depression as well.

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.

Antidepressants are usually effective in relieving a certain amount of pain, but many patients who deal with chronic pain are never treated for depression. Either they underreport their emotional struggles, or doctors fail to consider the possibility that a painful condition can coexist with MDD. If you or a loved one are suffering from chronic pain, and showing symptoms of depression, raise the topic with your family doctor.  It is entirely possible that treating the depression may help to break a cycle of pain and sadness that can so easily snowball into misery.

Pain and depression are linked, because they share certain nerve pathways and neurotransmitters. When the regulation of pain is disrupted, the regulation of moods may be as well, resulting in depression.  Treating chronic pain and depression together will often produce greater relief than only medicating for one or the other. Yes, pain can cause depression, but that means that treating depression can also relieve pain. Please seek medical advice to see whether dual treatment for pain and depression is right for you.

Resources Consulted



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