Treating Stress and Mental Health Can Reduce Pain
Someone once told me that pain is just a word until you experience it. If you’ve never experienced chronic pain, it’s hard to understand how much of a thorn in the side it can be. Chronic pain interferes with every aspect of your life. You sit and feel pain. You stand and feel pain. You move and feel pain. You sleep and feel pain. It’s incredibly frustrating to live with. It’s so much harder to stay present and positive during work and play time when there is a nagging pain in the background all the time.
The process of treating chronic pain can be equally frustrating because it’s often not managed well. Most people are just given the option of a pain killer or anti-inflammatory and sent on their way. This is usually not enough. Treating chronic pain should involve a well-rounded approach that includes treating the multiple causes of pain.
Believe it or not, one of those causes can be mental health and stress.
There is a lot or research showing that chronic pain can be worsened by stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. When you’re experiencing something like stress or anxiety it can affect your nervous system in a way that makes your body more sensitive to pain. So if, for example, your arthritis is causing you pain because of the damage to your joint, that pain can be amplified when you’re stressed, anxious or depressed because of the changes that happen in your nervous system when you experience those emotions. This is why your pain is sometimes worse when you’re stressed.
But it’s not only the nervous system that is to blame for this pain-brain connection. The HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) is a system in the body that connects your brain and your adrenal glands (often called your “stress glands”) via hormones. This system can go haywire when you’re stressed or struggling with anxiety and depression and this dysfunction can worsen your pain through a series of complex changes in your body. It’s also interesting to note that mental health conditions like depression and chronic pain have both been associated with increased inflammation in the body.
Many chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia, arthritis, chronic pelvic pain and migraines are associated with depression, anxiety and stress. Treating the psychological component of these complex conditions can greatly improve quality of life and pain perception. Likewise, mental health conditions like depression are often accompanied by chronic pain. The relationship goes both ways.
It’s common to feel like you’ve tried everything for your pain with no success. You might have already accepted that you’ll just have to live with your pain. If you haven’t tried working on your stress and mental health to improve your pain, I strongly encourage you to do so.
If your chronic pain is not going away, don’t settle for a treatment plan that doesn’t serve you well. Elevate your quality of care and build your own integrative plan that involves multiple different healthcare providers. As a naturopathic doctor, my part in this more holistic plan is to incorporate herbal medicine, diet/ nutrition, lifestyle changes and acupuncture into your treatment plan to manage the physical and psychological aspects of your pain.
Everyone suffering with chronic pain has a vision of what a pain-free life would look like. The things I hear most often are that patients want to keep up with kids better, enjoy work more, exercise more and be able to lose weight easier once they’re pain-free. These are such valuable goals to strive for. Take charge and build your health care dream-team to get you closer to fulfilling that vision.
Dr. Samantha Dass is currently a naturopathic doctor working at Holland Landing Health Centre in East Gwillimbury, Ontario, which services Holland Landing, Newmarket, Aurora, Keswick and Bradford areas. If you are interested in naturopathic services please contact Holland Landing Health Centre at 905-853-7900 or via e-mail at [email protected].