Stress and Chronic Pain

“Why do you guys always want to know how much stress I have?” While the patient who asked this question the other day had fibromyalgia, she could have had chronic low back or neck pain, chronic daily headaches, complex regional pain syndrome, or any other chronic pain condition. She was expressing a sentiment that I often hear in one form or another. It goes something like the following: ‘I’m hear to talk about my pain and what we can do about it, but you ask me about all these things that are unrelated to pain, like whether I worry, whether the worry keeps me up at night, what’s going on at home, whether my spouse believes me that I hurt as much as I do. In effect, I’m here to talk about my pain but you want to know how stressed I am. Why?’

It’s true. Providers who specialize in chronic pain rehabilitation always evaluate the patient’s pain, of course, but they also always assess the stressful problems that the patient experiences. To the list above, we might add such stressors as depression, anxiety, past trauma, sleep problems, persistent problems with concentration and short-term memory, financial problems, loss of the role in your occupation or family, the loss of sexual and emotional intimacy in your relationship, and the list could go on. All these problems cause stress, which is why we call them stressors. Why is it important to deal with stressors when having chronic pain?

There are a number of reasons why it is important, but let’s review two today:

  • If you can’t fix the pain, you might as well work on reducing the problems that occur because of the pain.
  • To successfully self-manage chronic pain, you have to manage your stress.

Let’s look at these reasons one at a time.

Stress caused by pain

Understandably, patients with chronic pain want to focus on how to reduce pain. To some extent, this focus is helpful. There are indeed a number of lifestyle changes, such as mild aerobic exercise and regular relaxation exercises, which, when done over time, can reduce pain. There are some medications, such as tricyclic antidepressants and antiepileptics, which have been shown to reduce pain too. However, these treatments are only so effective. We really don’t have any treatments that are super effective for chronic pain. (Procedures, such as injection therapies and spine surgeries, are known to be largely ineffective, despite how often they are pursued.) At the end of the day, chronic pain is chronic. It’s not ultimately fixable. While some of things that can be done to reduce chronic pain are helpful, they are only mildly so.

Given this fact, if you can’t fix the pain, then you might as well work on the problems that occur as a result of the pain. It’s possible to have chronic pain and not have it disrupt your life. It’s possible to have chronic pain and not be depressed about it. It’s possible to have chronic pain and sleep well at night. It’s possible to have chronic pain and work full-time. It’s possible to have chronic pain and have a fulfilling and intimate relationship.

Now, many people have to learn how. But, if they are open to learning, they can learn to self-manage pain well enough to be able to overcome these secondary problems. Such learning can take time and practice. It also takes a certain amount of devotion to maintain lifestyle changes, once you learn how to do them. Nonetheless, it is possible.

What patients learn could be called stress management and it involves cognitive behavioral therapies.

Good self-management of chronic pain involves stress management. When you overcome depression, even if chronic pain remains, it’s still a win for you. When you come to sleep well at night, after a period of chronic insomnia, life gets better, even if you continue to have chronic pain. When the strain in your relationships subside, your marriage and family life deepen, making life more meaningful and fulfilling, despite having chronic pain.

Overcoming the stressors in life, even when they occur as a result of chronic pain, is a way to get better when there is no cure for the pain itself. Patients with chronic pain might initially wonder why chronic pain rehabilitation providers want to focus on the stressors in their life, but from here we can see why. It’s a way to get better when there is no cure. If you can’t fix the pain, focus on overcoming the stressful consequences of living with pain. By doing so, you make life easier and better.

You also make the chronic pain more tolerable by coping better with it. By overcoming your depression or anxiety, everything in life gets easier to deal with – pain included. It becomes more tolerable. When you sleep reasonably well, on most nights, you deal with everything better – pain included. It becomes more tolerable. The same is true with any of the stressful problems that go along with living with chronic pain. When you overcome them, you cope better with the pain itself. By focusing on reducing stress, you come to cope better and pain can go from what was once intolerable to what is now tolerable.

Chronic pain rehabilitation is the form of chronic pain management that most focuses on helping patients to overcome the stress of living with chronic pain and thereby cope better with pain. The other forms of chronic pain management – spine surgery clinics, interventional pain management clinics, medication management clinics—focus mostly on reducing pain, and not on the stressors that occur as a result of pain. Chronic pain rehabilitation programs focus on both. They provide empirically proven methods to reduce pain, while also providing therapies to overcome depression, anxiety, insomnia, cognitive deficits, relationship problems, and disability.

Stress management and chronic pain management

We just saw how overcoming stressors related to pain makes life easier and better, even though you continue to have chronic pain. We also saw how overcoming stressors can lead to better coping, which, in turn, makes chronic pain more tolerable. Doing so, however, is important for another reason: managing stress well also reduces pain itself.

We all know that stress makes chronic pain worse (Alexander, et al., 2009; Flor, Turk, & Birbaumer, 1985). No matter what the original cause of your pain, stress exacerbates the pain. You have probably noticed this fact.

Whether it’s from depression, insomnia, relationship or financial problems, stress affects us by its effect on the nervous system. Stress makes us tense and nervous – literally. Our muscles becomes tight, particularly in certain areas of the body – the low back, mid and upper back, shoulders, neck, head, forehead, and jaw are the most common areas (we also feel it in our gut, by the way, with upset stomachs, reflux, diarrhea, among other things). Over time, the chronically tense muscles can ache and spasm. In other words, the persistent stress that results from chronic pain can cause chronic muscle tension, which, is painful.

Chronic pain causes more pain! It does so through the stress that it causes, which subsequently activates the nervous system and the persistently stressed nervous system leads to chronic muscle tension, which becomes painful in and of itself.

When understanding the role of stress from this perspective, most every chronic pain patient readily understands it because they live it. They see how stress affects their pain levels from their own experience.

Stress and its effect on the nervous system can exacerbate pain through more direct routes too. It’s not just the effect that stress has on muscle tension. It’s harder to see from your own personal experience, however, and so you’ll have to rely on a more textbook-like explanation. Stress, particularly the persistent stress of problems that occur as a result of chronic pain, causes changes to the nervous system itself. These changes occur in the spinal cord and brain and they result in changes in how sensory information is processed. An example of sensory information is pain signals that travel from nerves in the body, through the spinal cord, and up to the brain; the brain subsequently processes this information and the experience of pain results. As a result of persistent stress to this system, the brain comes to process such information with greater and greater sensitivity and as a result less and less stimuli (i.e., sensory information) is required to experience pain (Baliki, et al., 2006; Chapman, Tuckett, & Song, 2008; Curatolo, Arendt-Nielsen, & Petersen-Felix, 2006; Imbe, Iwai-Liao, & Senba, 2006; Kuehl, et al., 2010; Rivat, et al., 2010).

It’s generally accepted that by overcoming the persistently stressful problems that occur as a result of living with chronic pain – such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, you can make some headway in reversing these changes. You might not be able to change them entirely, but enough to reduce the pain itself. Indeed, most providers would concur that to adequately manage chronic pain these kinds of stressors must be addressed (Asmundson & Katz, 2009; Kroenke, et al., 2011; Vitiello, Rybarczyk, Von Korff, & Stepanski, 2009).

Concluding remarks

In all, good stress management is essential when it comes to successfully self-managing chronic pain. There is only so much that can be done to reduce pain when you have chronic pain. The most effective therapies we have for chronic pain are at best only mildly or modestly helpful at reducing pain. There is, however, no end to how well you can get at managing the stressors that result from chronic pain. It’s possible to overcome depression or anxiety or insomnia or relationship problems or any other stressor, even if you continue to have chronic pain. Now, these problems are not easily overcome. They take work and motivation and perseverance. Nonetheless, it is possible. By doing so, you get better. Pain becomes more tolerable too. In fact, by reducing the amount of stress in your life, you also reduce pain itself.

It’s for all these reasons that your healthcare providers keep wanting to focus on the stress in your life, in addition to the chronic pain in your life.


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Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD

Date of last modification: 11-4-2013