OCD and Physical Pain
I don’t think it comes as a surprise to many people that physical pain and mental pain often seem to be connected.
I often hear from people with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder who also suffer from debilitating physical pain. And it’s not unusual, once their OCD is treated, for their physical symptoms to subside or even disappear completely.
Sometimes the pain those with OCD experience is directly related to compulsions they perform. For example, some people with OCD are compelled to perform extensive rituals while showering, perhaps twisting and turning in particular ways for a specific amount of time. This might lead to chronic back or neck pain.
Repetition is common with compulsions and can lead to physical pain such as arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. I have heard of those who deal with trichotillomania experiencing relentless pain in their arms, wrists, hands and fingers. Also, turning doorknobs and tightening water faucets are other common compulsions in OCD that can lead to injury and physical pain.
In other cases, pain appears unrelated to the disorder. Headaches, intestinal issues, and fibromyalgia are just a few examples. Are they connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder? I don’t know, but I do know that having both physical pain and OCD can get quite complicated.
For example, if someone has a severe headache for a good amount of time, he or she would (hopefully) go to their doctor. The doctor might order a test, such as an MRI, which hopefully would come back normal. The person’s headache subsides, and life returns to normal.
That’s if you don’t have OCD. If you do have OCD, you might feel reassured immediately after the results of the MRI, but then the obsessive thinking might kick in:
- How can I be sure the test didn’t miss something?
- I tripped the other day and have been more forgetful than usual. I must have a brain tumor.
- Maybe the doctors got my test results mixed up with someone else’s?
As you can imagine, this list is endless.
Compulsions to temporarily quell this anxiety might include going back to the doctor, asking a loved one for reassurance, or being hyperaware of every “symptom” you feel. All of these rituals only serve to make the OCD stronger.
Nothing is simple when it comes to OCD.
In an interesting study, researchers found that participants with obsessive-compulsive disorder were actually unusually tolerant of physical pain, regardless of the nature or severity of their symptoms.
The scientists believe these findings suggest that individuals who struggle with emotional pain are able to endure physical pain to a much greater extent than others. In a nutshell, it appears the physical pain distracts from the emotional pain. This finding can perhaps give us somewhat of an understanding of the role of self-injury in OCD.
Perhaps those with OCD are willing to endure physical pain as a distraction from their emotional distress. Experiencing physical pain might also be seen as an expression of negative self-worth, or as a means to gain control over some aspect of suffering.
It’s interesting that two comments made by study participants were noted by the researchers. One comment was that the pain “felt good” and the other was, “In all the craziness of my OCD, pain is a constant. It’s one thing that you can count on.” So, the participants with OCD felt that this physical pain was something they could control in their otherwise chaotic world.
Pain and obsessive-compulsive disorder appear to be connected in different ways. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, however, when OCD is properly treated, many symptoms of pain often diminish, or disappear completely. Another great reason to get proper treatment and fight OCD.
Singer, J. (2018). OCD and Physical Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/ocd-and-physical-pain/