Depression and Chronic Pain: What You Should Know


Living with chronic pain can be a terrible burden. Whether your pain has resulted from an old injury, a recent one, or from an undeterminable cause, it’s vital that you get treated for your pain. In the event of a recent injury, ensuring that your injury heals properly is important to preventing acute pain from turning into chronic pain.

Chronic pain is defined as lasting longer than a few months, but for some people, chronic pain can last a lifetime. With this in mind, many people get depressed thinking about a lifetime with pain. Remember that chronic pain doesn’t have to equal depression. Here’s what you should know about how depression and chronic pain are intertwined.

Chronic Pain Often Makes Life Feel Unbearable

Your pain may not lead to depression right away, especially if it’s new. However, if you’re dealing with an old injury that’s caused you pain for quite some time, it’s easy to feel like there’s no hope. Chronic pain can often make life feel unbearable. When our bodies are constantly under strain from experiencing pain, everything else can be made to feel oppressive. Dealing with pain in itself can be exhausting, but what do you do when you have a full-time job or a family to take care of?

When you deal with pain over long periods of time, depression can sneak up on you. Things you once enjoyed can seem like difficult tasks for you on account of your pain. You may find yourself thinking of how many things you have to do when you don’t feel well. You might feel irritated, have trouble sleeping, or feel hopeless and fatigued.

Depression Can Make Your Pain Worse

The symptoms of depression can actually make your pain worse, whether it’s chronic or acute pain. Depression often results in feeling fatigued, which means you may not be as physically active as you normally are. Exercise can be an important tool in managing chronic pain by providing strength and flexibility, especially among joints.

Depression can also disturb your sleep, making it less likely that you’ll heal. When you aren’t sleeping properly, your chronic pain can get worse. This happens because your body doesn’t experience the healing and energy restoration that happens during deep sleep. Your pain may seem even more unmanageable after even just a couple nights of poor rest.

Depression can result in an array of other symptoms, including loss of interest in things you enjoy as well as decreased—or even increased—appetite. Either one could negatively affect your pain. Not getting enough nourishment doesn’t give your body what it needs to work properly and heal. Getting too much could result in weight gain, which could put more strain on your body, therefore making your chronic pain worse.

Treatment for Both Can Help

Many times, patients focus on dealing with their pain when they’re with their pain management doctor. This means your depression may not even be addressed. However, it’s important that you talk about depression with your pain management doctor. Since chronic pain and depression often affect each other, getting your depression treated is just as important as getting treatment for your chronic pain.

Maggie Harris, an LCSW with Center for Spine Joint & Neuromuscular Rehabilitation in Nashville, Tennessee explains how patients who struggle with depression can experience better treatment for their pain if they treat their depression as well. “Treating depression helps our patients to identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors which can lead to changes in perception of pain as well as the ability to cope with pain. For example, some patients get down on themselves for what they cannot do now, which leads to worsening mood.  Learning to grieve the losses that can come with pain and then shift the focus to what is their sense of purpose, given changes in functioning (such as not being able to play with their kids in the same way or decreased ability to provide financially), can be extremely helpful.  In general, when our patients are not disabled by depression and are focusing on other people or things they care about, they are less emotionally disabled by their pain.”

Your symptoms of depression can make your chronic pain worse, and life with chronic pain can seem difficult enough as it is. This is why it’s so important to get treatment for your chronic pain, but talk with your pain management doctor about depression too. Depression can amplify your chronic pain while also making you less able to deal with it.

For treatment for your depression, ask your pain management doctor what you can do. It’s likely seeing a mental health professional can benefit you along with your treatment for chronic pain. You may also consider medication. Just remember that your depression matters just as much as your chronic pain does, and getting your depression treated can play an important role in treating your chronic pain.

Don’t focus on your chronic pain but ignore any symptoms of depression you may have. There is hope for your chronic pain as well as for your depression. Get back to enjoying life by talking with your doctor about treatment. Getting your pain managed and your depression under control can get you feeling back to your normal self again and help you better cope with your pain!