These days it seems like not a day goes by without a least one alarming news report highlighting the “epidemics” besieging the United States – obesity, cancer, Type II diabetes, autism, and on and on. But there is an epidemic going on in this country that receives considerably less fanfare: chronic pain. According to the National Institutes of Health, chronic pain is a condition that impacts more Americans than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined. In fact, it can be so debilitating that chronic pain is the leading cause of Americans going on long-term disability. While there are seemingly infinite possible causes of long-term pain, studies have shown that it is often inextricably linked with stress, anxiety and depression.
A Vicious Cycle
Both pain and anxiety can severely interfere with functioning and quality of life. When pain and anxiety occur alongside each other, one condition tends to feed the other. The longer it goes on, the more difficult it becomes to break free of the cycle. It can be very hard for a person in pain to follow through on anxiety treatment, and anxious people often have medical-related anxieties or feel simply too overwhelmed to meaningfully address their pain. Additionally, anxiety sufferers often have pain-related anxieties and seem to exhibit lower pain tolerance, which only makes the problem worse. Unfortunately, this is where many people get pulled into addiction, as narcotic painkillers provide quick relief, but also cause dependency.
Chronic pain is seen commonly alongside most anxiety disorders, particularly general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and PTSD.
It can manifest in a number of different ways:
- Tension headaches
- Muscle stiffness and soreness
- Back pain
Experts are increasingly calling attention to the correlation between anxiety and chronic pain. Just last year, a study published in General Hospital Psychiatry found that nearly half (45%) of pain patients had at least one anxiety disorder, and that anxious patients generally reported more pain and worse quality of life. The researchers concluded that chronic pain patients should also be screened for anxiety disorders.
When a person suffers from chronic anxiety or stress, the nervous system is constantly on overdrive when it shouldn’t be. This leads to a condition called central sensitization, which the Institute for Chronic Pain explains is the “the process by which acute pain becomes chronic pain.”
Chronic pain should not be taken lightly or dismissed. It is best to begin addressing the issue as soon as possible. The following are only some of the effects of long-term pain:
- Causes edginess and mood disruptions
- Causes sufferers to dwell on their pain and exacerbate their anxiety
- Makes it difficult to function in everyday life
- Leads to chronic muscle tension, which worsens pain
- Slows treatment of mood disorders
- When it persists to the point of limiting mobility and ability to work, it can result in isolation, inactivity, and even long-term disability
What’s more, chronic pain sufferers who don’t already have anxiety, face three times the risk of developing anxiety or other mood disorders.
Over time, chronic pain can alter how your nervous system functions and make it even more difficult for your body to cope with pain. Under normal conditions, the brain is designed to divert physical discomfort signals, which allows us to tend to our daily business without becoming focused on every little ache and pain. But this function can become impaired, making it much more difficult to block pain signals. When this happens, it can cause increased pain, as well as, sadness and anxiety; because some of the same neurotransmitters that handle pain signal are also involved in mood regulation.
Treatment for Long-Term Pain
If you suffer from stress- or anxiety-related chronic pain, experts recommend that you look into chronic pain rehabilitation programs, which help pain patients manage their pain and their anxiety, and assist them in making necessary life changes. These programs combine physical therapy and gentle exercise, nutrition, yoga, meditation, hypnosis, and cognitive behavioral therapy for effective pain management.