Living with Chronic Pain and Depression
About 50 percent of people who have chronic pain also have depression, according to Robert D. Kerns, Ph.D, National Program Director for Pain Management for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and Director of the Pain Research, Informatics, Medical comorbidities and Education (PRIME) Center at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System.
Some individuals experience a decline in mood with a sense of loss, he said. Others experience a loss of interest or pleasure in activities they previously enjoyed. Still others experience “an increased irritability, impatience or lower tolerance for the normal stresses of daily life.”
Chronic pain also creates many stressors, which can lead to depression, said Beverly Thorn, Ph.D, Clinical Health Psychology Professor and Chair at The University of Alabama whose research focuses on painful conditions. Chronic pain interferes with a person’s daily functioning. It lasts at least three months, more days than not, she said.
“People might be unable to work or work the way they used to.” Consequently, they might have financial problems, and a new role in their family. Patients have told Thorn that not being the main provider has made them feel worthless or like they’re not contributing to their family unit.
Treating Both Conditions
It’s important to treat both chronic pain and depression, Kerns said. “Many people with pain and depression say things like ‘If you had my pain you’d be depressed, too,’ or ‘If you would treat my pain, I wouldn’t be depressed.’ However, reducing pain doesn’t necessarily reduce symptoms of depression, he said.
That’s why Kerns suggested people work with providers who treat each condition (instead of an either-or approach). Some studies suggest that a collaborative and integrative approach is best. This study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a course of antidepressants followed by a pain self-management program improved both depression and pain.
If you haven’t yet, consult a pain specialist for a treatment plan, along with a mental health specialist for a proper evaluation and treatment for depression, Kerns said. It’s also important to communicate regularly with your providers and pay attention to changes, Thorn added.
When to Proceed with Caution
One of the biggest challenges of treating both pain and depression is that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness lead people to try cures that are ineffective and even damaging, according to Kerns. “Continued doctor-shopping is problematic.”