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Chronic Pain and Mental Health

Man in pain rubbing his backWhat is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is a condition in which those suffering feel unrelenting pain for a period of three months or longer. According to Statistics Canada, an estimated 6 million Canadians, or about 19% of the population live with chronic pain. For those experiencing chronic pain, it usually begins with an injury that causes inflammation and changes to the central nervous system. Typically, the injured area heals, scar tissue is produced and the inflammation resolves. However, for those with chronic pain, the nervous system continues to send pain signals to muscles, as though a new injury were occurring. Why? The reason is studied but still remains unknown. 

With the cause being a mystery, the solution can feel evasive as well. Regulating sleep, weight, exercise and diet have been proven helpful in pain management, however many use their own forms of personal regulation such as tobacco and opioid use for relief, which can be dangerous and life-threatening. Others choose different measures such as physical or occupational therapy and prescription pain medication, however the pain is rarely completely eliminated. 

 

How does chronic pain impact mental health? 

Being in pain for a prolonged period of time is bound to make anyone irritable. But chronic pain is more than just an annoyance; almost 60% of those with chronic pain also experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Chronic pain can impact Woman with sad expression holding her headmood, physical mobility, and one’s ability to engage in physical and social activities. It can also cause insomnia, disordered eating and mood swings. These factors contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression, and can worsen chronic pain as these conditions increase pain sensitivity and lower pain tolerance. 

Pain is a symptom in about half of those suffering from depression, leading some to believe that depression can cause chronic pain, and not the other way around. While the cause may forever be debated, the need for a proactive treatment for these coexisting conditions is essential. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be used to restructure the patterns of pain management and help those with chronic pain and depression break the cycle. 

 

Is the experience different for children with chronic pain? 

Chronic pain in children is difficult to diagnose, however, the three most common chronic pain disorders in pediatrics are headaches, abdominal pain, and/or musculoskeletal and joint pain. Often dismissed as “growing pains”, children carry on until it results in the loss of routine and ability to function. 

Once this happens, children can experience disruption of family dynamics and cohesiveness, restriction of normal social and daily activities, and decrease in positive mood. These factors contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression, impacting the developing mind. Anxiety and depression can cause children to feel irritable,

Child in pain, crying

 unmotivated, self-critical, and can have long-term effects if untreated. 

While the effects of chronic pain are similar in children and adults, children are more vulnerable, and the mental health of parents can impact the mental health of a child with chronic pain. The anxieties and fears caregivers can worsen the child’s mental wellness and increase their chronic pain. It is important to remember to keep a positive attitude, focusing on what the child is able to do rather than their limitations. CBT is also effective for children as it allows them to reframe how they manage their pain and help them live with its effects.

 

Samantha-Rose Martin, headshot

About the author

Samantha-Rose is the Digital Marketing Intern at CMAP Health and Unified CBT. She Studied Business at Ryerson University and is now a Public Relations major at Humber College.

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