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.”
Also problematic is pursuing more and more aggressive pain interventions, which he said only reinforce the “sense of helplessness and hopelessness and demoralization.”
Opioid medication is another concern. According to Kerns, there’s very little evidence that opioids are helpful for chronic pain. Instead, there’s “abundant evidence of the potential harm of long-term opioid therapy.”
For people with pain and depression, “who may be vulnerable to pursue these kinds of interventions,” it’s best to be cautious. Most experts “argue for very limited use of pharmacological agents and support education, encouragement and judicious use of non-opioid, over-the-counter [medication],” along with a healthy lifestyle and self-management techniques, he said.
How Psychotherapy Helps
Experts used to think that the amount of pain a person felt was equal to the amount of damage in their body, Thorn said. Today, however, we know that our thoughts and emotions can influence the perception of pain, making it much worse or less intense, she said. Psychotherapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), harness this concept “by re-teaching your brain.”
Research has found that CBT is highly effective for managing both pain and depression. (“Some of the strongest evidence supports CBT,” Kerns said. But he also noted that other therapies such as behavioral activation and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy show promise.)
For instance, CBT teaches individuals to pay attention to their thought processes, which can maximize or minimize pain. Thoughts like “This pain has ruined my life, and there’s nothing left to be done,” negatively affect your emotions and behaviors, said Thorn, author of Cognitive Therapy for Chronic Pain: A Step-by-Step Guide. They also make you more likely to get depressed and withdraw. Plus, “If you feel like there’s nothing you can do, you won’t do anything,” which is “really dangerous for someone with chronic pain.”
For instance, one of Thorn’s clients, who has lower back pain, kept saying that his spine was disintegrating because his MRI showed some damage. Thorn asked him how this thought was affecting his emotions and behavior. “It makes me panic, and I’m afraid to do anything.” This thought also spiked his blood pressure, breathing and heart rate. Thorn suggested he find another perspective that’s more realistic and less of an emotional noose. He came up with the following thought: “There’s still some damage to my spine, but no amount of surgeries will help that damage. [However] it is the kind of damage that would be helped with muscle strengthening.”
Today, Thorn’s client plans to work with a physical therapist to strengthen his muscles. “As soon as someone has an empowering thought, they start to feel like they have a little bit more control over their life,” Thorn said. “His spine is damaged. He’s had three surgeries. But does he have control? Yes, he does.”
Paying attention to your thoughts is especially helpful when your pain level rises. For instance, Thorn suggested asking yourself, “What just went through my mind? What am I saying to myself?” If you become aware of a negative thought that’s emotionally laden for you, “stop, breathe and then consider your options.” This helps to interrupt your reflexive reactions, such as lashing out at yourself or your loved ones. It helps you choose a different path, and reminds you that you have more control than you think you do, she said.
In CBT, along with other therapies like behavioral activation, clinicians also help patients discover the kinds of physical activities they can engage in without exacerbating their pain, Thorn said. They also help them make realistic goals and manage defeatist thinking.
For instance, a person who used to run 10 miles might be able to walk for a few minutes today. They might easily think that such a minor activity isn’t even worth it. However, as Thorn said, walking for 5 minutes several days a week adds up. Soon you might be able to walk for five days, and so on. “That kind of gradual increase will build on itself.” Plus, regular physical activity helps to improve mood and energy levels.
Living with chronic pain can be especially debilitating. It can lead to or exacerbate clinical depression. Fortunately, these conditions are highly treatable. The key is to seek treatment for both, and to remember that a fulfilling life is absolutely possible.
Thorn and Kerns both recommended the book Managing Pain Before It Manages You by Dr. Margaret A. Caudill. Kerns suggested John Otis’s Managing Chronic Pain: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach Workbook.