The emotional aspects of chronic pain

People suffering from depression and anxiety tend to experience a much higher intensity of pain than happy people.

Myupchar August 30, 2019 16:34:41 IST
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The emotional aspects of chronic pain
  • According to United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), pain is perceived as a result of complex neural mechanisms that take stimuli from the injury site to the brain, which then signals to the body that it is hurt

  • In people living with chronic pain, the brain continues to send pain signals to the body even after the injury has healed

  • The neuronal pathways for pain cross with the pathways that help you perceive emotions such as anxiety and depression

Pain is the body’s natural response to injury or disease. But for people living with chronic pain — or pain that lasts for more than 12 weeks — the cause may be rooted in their emotions.

According to United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), pain is perceived as a result of complex neural mechanisms that take stimuli from the injury site to the brain, which then signals to the body that it is hurt.

The emotional aspects of chronic pain

Representative image. Image source: Pixabay

Generally, these signals stop once the injury heals. However, in people living with chronic pain, the brain continues to send pain signals to the body. Sometimes this happens without an injury - but that does not mean that the pain is not real.

Chronic pain in India

A prevalence survey published in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care put the number of Indians suffering from chronic pain at about 19.3% of the population - that is roughly 180-200 million adults, not taking into account the millions of cases that go unreported every year.

Another research study published in the Indian Journal of Pain by Dr Archana Deshpande, a pain consultant in Maharashtra showed that chronic pain is more common in women aged 21-60, with the highest number of cases of back pain (24.8%), followed by body pain (22.98%), knee pain, chest pain and pain in the arms.

Emotional connection

According to a post on HealthBeat, a magazine published by Harvard Health Publishing, people suffering from depression and anxiety tend to experience a much higher intensity of pain than happy people. However, chronic pain may also lead to depression and stress.

Interestingly, the neuronal pathways for pain cross with the pathways that help you perceive emotions such as anxiety and depression. Consider this: opioids, the most common painkiller around the world, instil a sense of euphoria and suppress pain at the same time.

What makes it worse

When we are in pain, we may change the way we walk, sit or sleep. For example, we may limp to avoid putting weight on a painful limb. Or we may avoid moving the head due to a stiff neck. Experts say this just makes things worse.

In “The relationship between guarding, pain and emotion”, Temitayo Olugbade, a research fellow at the University College London, blamed anxiety and fear of disability for persistent pain. He added that it severely reduces workplace efficiency.

Olugbade argued that instead of trying to reduce pain alone, treatment for chronic pain should also deal with the underlying emotions.

Emotional freedom technique

Cognitive behavioural therapy, exercises, medicines and mindfulness have variously been used to treat chronic pain. A self-help technique to deal with this kind of pain is also gaining cadence - it’s called the emotional freedom technique (EFT).

Research collaborators Donna Bach and Gary Groesbeck at the National Institute of Integrative Medicine, U.S., reported the positive mental and physical effects of EFT in their February 2019 article: “Clinical EFT improves multiple physiological markers of health”. They wrote that EFT increases happiness and improves a broad range of health markers, leading to a gradual but definitive reduction in somatic symptoms.

The Derbyshire Community Health Service, U.K., describes how you can use EFT to get rid of long-standing pain: EFT is akin to psychological acupuncture that helps you identify the root emotion of the pain, accept its presence and release it to get rid of your distress. For example, if you are feeling guilty for missing your spouse’s birthday, tell yourself “this pain is because of forgetting one thing”. Notice the use of the term pain instead of guilt in this sentence. It sends a signal to your brain that you know that your pain is rooted in your guilt. Next, rate your pain based on its intensity, and reverse it with a positive statement like “I accept who I am with all my flaws, even though I am feeling guilty (or whatever emotion it is) about this”.

The final step is to touch all your acupressure points, starting from the top of your head, the corner of your eyebrows, below your eyes, below your nose, the curve between the lower lip and your chin, your collarbone, neck, underarms, ribcage, your index, middle and little fingers, karate chop point (the outer edge of your palm) and all the way to the point behind the knuckles of your ring and little finger.

You can repeat the whole process after some eye exercises and humming a few tunes. Advocates of EFT point to patient feedback to show that it could be just the thing for chronic pain.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. To know more on this topic, please visit https://www.myupchar.com/en/disease/pain

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