Overcoming Mood Disorders Caused By Chronic Pain

Suffering from chronic pain is already hard enough, yet so many of those who experience it also find themselves feeling another lesser known yet equally debilitating side effect: mood disorders.

For those who suffer from chronic pain, life can be tricky. But chronic pain does a lot more than just affect us physically. Mood disorders often come hand-in-hand with chronic pain, which can do a lot to exacerbate the entire issue. And with the various medications and treatments and appointments that occur, on top of the severe pain that is constantly felt, is it any wonder that our mental health takes a downturn as well? 

This article will aim to explain how we can overcome mood disorders that are concurrent with chronic pain, and provide a little positivity to those who are experiencing such issues by detailing how to get help.

There are many reasons why chronic pain can affect and cause mood disorders. When someone is suffering from pain, on top of the physical aspect, they’re more likely going to experience things like:

  • Higher levels of stress hormones
  • Lower physical performance abilities
  • Sleep disruption
  • Lack of energy
  • Issues within interpersonal relationships and the workplace

These issues can be that which springboards a sufferer into a depressive episode, which can be highly difficult to pull yourself out of – especially if you aren’t aware of the problem.

What sort of mood disorders are most commonly experienced?

Depression is largely the most common complaint of chronic pain sufferers. Alarmingly, around 50% of sufferers who attend clinics have also been diagnosed with depression. For these people, the pain can often feel worse, and be more persistent, than those who suffer from chronic pain but not depression. Living with chronic pain can be hard enough, and depression and other mood disorders serves only to amplify that by causing issues on health, relationships, personal functioning and quality of life in general.

Further, the rates of increased suicidal ideation, attempts, and completions in chronic pain patients are higher than nonpatients. Regardless of this, diagnosing depression in such patients can often take a while to occur, if it is discovered at all. When getting help for chronic pain, any additional depressive symptoms can be mistakenly pushed aside, with a larger focus on pain management instead. While this can be beneficial, because dealing with pain effectively can assist in the reduction of depression and other mood disorders, it can be damaging if such depressive symptoms continue without being taken into consideration.

With chronic pain and depression, sufferers may feel things like:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Reduction in self esteem
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Impatience
  • Financial worries
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Loss of libido
  • Lack of interest in life
  • Suicidal ideation and/or thoughts

And when these things are felt on top of the pain, it’s no wonder the potential for mood disorders are higher in chronic pain patients. However, there’s a reason why mood disorders like depression and chronic pain tend to overlap: they share some of the particular brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that our bodies use to send messages all around the body. The brain circuitry that deals in mood regulation and responding to stress also overlaps with the pain matrix (also known as the neuromatrix – the area that processes pain). This coexistence aggravates the symptoms of both depression and chronic pain, and it’s often found that treating the pain effectively can reduce depression, and vice versa.

So, what are the best ways to treat chronic pain-related mood disorders?

Certainly, one of the most effective methods of treating mood disorders caused by chronic pain is a mix of medication and psychotherapy. This, on top of treatments for chronic pain itself, can ease suffering and encourage a higher quality of life. Effective medications include certain antidepressants (such as serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors), which can act to stabilise mood, improve pain perception and reduce feelings of worthlessness and depression. 

Psychotherapy is also a highly effective treatment for both mood disorders and chronic pain. In particular, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) has often been thought to be highly effective at treating major depression. CBT aims to put depression sufferers on the path to remission and recovery by challenging negative beliefs about themselves (so for chronic pain sufferers, this might be the belief that they’ll never get better, or the pain will get worse). While CBT doesn’t work to remove the pain entirely (although it can for some), it is purported to be able to reduce pain symptoms and catastrophizing, which can improve mood disorders and have a knock-on effect of positivity throughout the patient’s life.

Physical activity can also assist in both feelings of depression and chronic pain. While it can be tempting to avoid exercise, even if it’s very light, it’s important to understand how effective it can be, not only in decreasing pain, but in drastically improving mood. If physical activity sounds like something you’d like to consider in helping you manage your pain, it’s important to first speak with your doctor or healthcare professional. This way, you can get the all clear before diving into anything that might make your chronic pain worse, and together you can work on an exercise plan that is tailored to suit you personally. 

For anyone suffering from chronic pain, it’s important to know that you don’t have to let it control you. This is easier said than done when pain can feel so overwhelming it eclipses any other thoughts, but by rising above it and taking control, you will lower the risk of depression or mood disorders, improve your pain levels, and lead a better, happier, healthier life.


Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.

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