Chronic pain is often difficult to diagnose and treat. Consequently, those who suffer from chronic pain typically must also deal with a significant amount of stress, due to repeated failed treatments, numerous medical appointments, interruption of work and enjoyable activities, and the inability of their friends or family to understand their physical limitations. This can, in turn, cause or worsen depression. When depression occurs alongside chronic pain, it can make dealing with and treating the pain even harder.
Chronic Pain Disorders Associated with the Co-Occurrence of Depression
While mental health conditions, including depression, can often be disabling in and of themselves, they are unfortunately also quite common in those suffering from chronic pain. Depression is more likely to co-occur with certain conditions, such as:
- Back Pain
- Neck Pain
- Joint Pain
Studies show that rates of depression are high in residents and medical students (15%-30%) than rates in the general population, and the risk of depression continues throughout a physician’s career. According to a British study, 60% of dentists reported being anxious, tense, or depressed.
Dentists, doctors, and other medical professionals place extreme amounts of pressure on themselves because the stakes of their professions are so high. In addition to perfectionism and self-criticism, other predictors of depression in doctors include: lack of sleep, stressful interactions with patients and staff, dealing with death, constant responsibility, loneliness, and making mistakes.
Often practitioners work through both chronic pain and psychiatric disorders for some time before acknowledging their disability or seeking adequate treatment. In the case of depression, this can be due in part to the social stigma that surrounds it. For all of these reasons, depression may go undiagnosed or seem less of an immediate concern to those suffering from chronic pain. However, if you are experiencing symptoms of depression and chronic pain, studies show that it is important to treat both, because chronic pain can become much more difficulty to treat if the depression is allowed to progress unchecked.
Chronic Pain and Depression—Worse Together
Facing a long-term or permanent disability can trigger depression—this is especially understandable for doctors or dentists who have put years into medical school and establishing their careers, only to become disabled and have to step away from a profession that has become a significant part of their identity. Depression can also precede chronic pain. For example, several studies have examined the link between depression before the onset of back-pain.
Regardless of which came first, together they are formidable to treat. Major depression is thought to be four times greater in people with chronic back pain than those in the general population, and studies show that individuals suffering from both chronic back pain and depression experienced a greater degree of impairment than those with either depression or back pain alone.
Treatments for Depression
Focusing solely on pain management can prevent both the patient’s and treating physician’s ability to recognize that a psychiatric disorder is also present. Yet, even with correct diagnoses, both issues can be difficult to treat together. For instance, those who suffer from both chronic pain and mental illnesses can have a lower pain threshold as well as increased sensitivity to medication side-effects. Some treatments that have proved successful in addressing depression in those with chronic pain include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Psychodynamic therapy (talk therapy)
- Relaxation or meditation training
Symptoms of Depression
- Little interest or pleasure in doing things
- Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless
- Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
- Feeling tired or having little energy
- Poor appetite or overeating
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling bad about yourself, or that you are a failure or have let yourself or others down
- Thoughts that you would be better off dead, or hurting yourself in some way
Chronic pain sufferers who recognize any of the above-referenced symptoms in themselves should talk to their doctor to address these serious issues.
 Robert P. Bright, MD, Depression and suicide among physicians, Current Psychiatry, April 10, 2011.
 William W. Deardorff, PHD, ABPP, Depression Can Lead to Chronic Back Pain, Spine-health.com, Oct. 15, 2004, http://www.spine-health.com/conditions/depression/depression-can-lead-chronic-back-pain.
 William W. Deardorff, PhD, ABPP, Depression and Chronic Back Pain, Spine-health.com, Oct. 15, 2004, http://www.spine-health.com/conditions/depression/depression-and-chronic-back-pain.
 Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., The pain-anxiety-depression connection, Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-pain-anxiety-depression-connection.
 Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Chronic Pain, https://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/chronic-pain.
Often, when an insured begins to suffer chronic pain, the insured’s first thought is to contact his or her doctor to seek out a prescription for pain medication. At the same time, many insureds do not want to take pain medication because such medication can often have harmful side effects. In this post, we will be looking at some alternative methods of treating chronic pain that insureds who are hesitant about taking pain medication may want to consider.
This is a technique where practitioners stimulate specific points on the body by inserting thin needles into the skin.
The Case For. Results from several studies suggest that acupuncture is an effective method of treating chronic pain, particularly low-back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis/knee pain.
The Case Against. Studies also suggest that, although acupuncture can help relieve back pain immediately after treatment, it is less effective as a long-term solution. Additionally, improperly performed acupuncture can cause serious side effects, including infections, punctured organs, collapsed lungs, and injury to the central nervous system.
Stress often aggravates and increases chronic pain. Hypnosis seeks to lessen pain levels by alleviating stress levels.
The Case For. Multiple studies have shown that hypnosis is useful for reducing pain, including an analysis of studies by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine that revealed moderate to large pain-relieving effects from hypnosis.
The Case Against. Other studies suggest that the positive effects of hypnosis are merely the result of a placebo effect.
While exercise is often recommended as a treatment for chronic pain, many insureds fear that rigorous exercise will actually increase, not lessen, their pain. Yoga offers a gentle way to exercise that doesn’t involve too much stress on joints while still enabling you to strengthen the muscles around your joints.
The Case For. Duke University Medical Center completed a review of 20 years’ worth of studies and found that yoga is an effective treatment for many forms of chronic pain, including osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and fibromyalgia.
The Case Against. Yoga can be difficult for people who aren’t very flexible, and classes can sometimes be too strenuous for those just starting out. Beginners should start with basic poses before attempting advanced poses that could exacerbate their pain if not performed properly.
Many people assert that altering your diet is an effective method of fighting pain-causing illnesses. More specifically, foods that have been linked to lowering pain levels include:
- Cherries (arthritis, muscle pain)
- Ginger (migraines, arthritis, sore muscles)
- Salmon (aching back, neck, and joints)
- Turmeric (aching joints)
- Edamame (arthritis)
- Hot peppers (arthritis)
The Case For. All of these foods are easy to find and fairly easy to work into your diet. They are also present a natural alternative to medicines that may have potentially harmful side effects.
The Case Against. These treatment options won’t necessarily work unless the rest of your diet is fairly healthy. The potentially helpful effects of these foods will often be offset by the junk food that many people consume. Consequently, a major overhaul your diet may be necessary in order to see any meaningful results.
We have talked extensively about how various disabilities, such as arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and chronic neck and back pain, can affect you and your practice. One of the ways of dealing with all of these disabilities is to take painkillers such as Advil and Aleve, or NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Many people will be prescribed these medications, or take them over-the-counter, for issues ranging from a small headache to disabling pain.
However, just because these drugs are common doesn’t mean they’re completely foolproof or safe. Recently, the FDA has announced that there should be changes made to the labels of NSAIDs regarding their risks. Instead of saying that they “may cause” an increased risk of heart attack or stroke, the FDA urges that the wording should state that they do “cause an increased risk”.
In 2013, a study found that high doses of NSAIDs heightened the risk of heart attack by one-third. In a 2014 study, people taking NSAIDs were 19% more likely to die from a stroke. It is also important to understand that while higher risks occur at higher doses, the FDA warns that the increased chance of heart attack and stroke can occur as early as one week into treatment. Also noteworthy is that if you, or your family, have a history of heart disease, you are even more susceptible.
Even more interesting is that taking antidepressants and NSAIDs at the same time has been shown to heighten one’s risk for intracranial hemorrhage, which is bleeding that occurs around the brain. While the occurrence of bleeding was still relatively low (only about 6 per 1000 people studied), the combination of the two drugs increased occurrence by 60%.
This is especially relevant not only due to doctors and dentists having a great chance to develop debilitating pain due simply to their professions, but also because it is shown that doctors and dentists are also at a higher risk for depression and mental illness.
While we certainly don’t encourage you to stop taking your NSAIDs, we simply advise that you stay educated about what these medications mean for your health. We also recommend speaking with a doctor about your options and what would be best for your specific health needs. If your pain is so incapacitating that you you think you may need to file for disability, be sure to contact a disability insurance lawyer so they they can help you with the process.