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Depression and Pain

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 22 Jun 2012 | comments*Discuss
Depression Pain Worse Perception

Depression can go hand-in-hand with pain. One of the problems with pain, however, is that doctors may believe it’s all in the patient’s head, especially where a mental health disorder such as depression exists.

In other instances, it is assumed that the depression stems specifically from physical pain. The physical pain could be occurring for any number of reasons. It might be associated with anything from trauma to a long-term disability or illness.

Depression Worsens Pain

But a new study suggests that it can also be somewhat of a grey area. Where real physical pain exists, depression can make that pain much worse.

How Pain Occurs Alongside Depression

New research shows that it can be very much a combination of the two. We already know that depression and pain can occur at the same time but we have not really known exactly why this happens.

Brain Imaging for Pain and Low Moods

Researchers wanted to find out how exactly pain and depression can interact. They used brain imaging to look at healthy volunteers and how they responded to pain when they were emotionally ‘down’ and feeling low.

Increased Perception of Pain

Results of the study showed that where a person had a depressed mood, a part of their brain circuitry that manages emotions was disrupted. Their overall perception of pain was enhanced.

What it means is that if a person is sad from negative thoughts or a negative environment, they tend to process pain on a more emotional level. Ultimately, they ‘feel’ the pain more than a person who has happy, positive moods.

More Pain if You Suffer from Depression

The consequences are far-reaching because it suggests that people who are depressed will suffer from pain more than if they managed their depression and had elevated moods each day. Their low moods somehow disable their ability to regulate the impact of pain and a key in the future will be to find out if we can use medications or other treatments to intervene.

Where we know that pain sometimes preceding depression, this study suggests that depression makes the pain worse. It makes finding the right treatment for your depression more important than ever.

What it Means for Chronic Pain

Researchers want to take these study results and look at the exact mechanism whereby a person suffers from chronic pain. People who deal with chronic pain are more likely to suffer from depression, which then could make managing depression more challenging. The hope is that we can find more targeted and effective treatments. This way, we can help relieve depressive symptoms and perhaps operate on the pathways involved in the pain response to lessen the effect.

Relieving Pain and Depression

For those who suffer from depression and deal with real physical pain on a daily basis, it can be especially frustrating to find a treatment that works. Fortunately, researchers are giving this important area the attention it deserves, which will hopefully lead to more insight and treatments to help people who suffer from physical pain and depression.

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