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Chronic Pain and Mental Health - Understanding the Connection


May is National Mental Health Month – a time when we physicians (hopefully) are able to educate and shed light on the subject of, and perhaps most importantly, reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Like any other type of chronic condition or disease, mental illness deserves medical attention. It is real. And the patients who are suffering deserve to feel validated and supported. In my experience with patients who are dealing with a condition that is accompanied by chronic pain, mental decline can sometimes, unfortunately, go hand-in-hand. And it can often present itself in the form of depression.

One thing I try to help my patients understand early in our conversations is that depression is common when battling an illness that brings on chronic pain. Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s “normal” or “OK.” The simple fact is that it is important for people who are suffering to know they are not alone and they are NOT ‘crazy.’ Of course, infrequent episodes of sadness or melancholy are a normal part of the human existence. But when these feelings overwhelm, or last longer than a few weeks, this is where the clinical diagnosis of depression can come into play.

If the difficulty with daily living wasn’t enough for people who are dealing with a chronic pain condition, depression can make life for some feel like an inescapable prison. Clinical depression symptoms go well beyond “a bad mood,” which is the way some people who aren’t suffering can perceive it. It’s hard to focus on wellness and recovery from illness when just getting out of bed can feel like climbing Mt. Everest. But this is the reality for some people and it deserves acknowledgement and compassion from society, loved ones and caregivers.

More than anything, if you or someone you love is suffering from a chronic pain condition that isn’t being well-managed it is time to seek expert advice. As a fellowship-trained neurologist in Multi-Disciplinary Pain Medicine, I can tell you that this is a real medical field. With expert and experienced diagnosis and treatment, Pain Medicine is about so much more than a prescription for medication when it comes to treating and relieving chronic pain. And while we want to get to the bottom of what is causing the chronic pain in the first place, we also want our patients to know that even the toughest clinical depression symptoms associated with it are absolutely treatable. Reach out to your doctor, have courage in asking for help. I can tell you in my experience as a physician, for some patients – the asking for help can end up being the life preserver that stops them from drowning in a sea of despair.


Chronic Pain and Mental Illness:

Mental disorders among persons with chronic back or neck pain:

Chronic Pain in adolescence and childhood heightens risk for depressive and anxiety disorders: