Those suffering from chronic pain or illness are often the unseen victims of mental health issues and may go under or undiagnosed when addressing their emotional health. There are many reasons why this occurs. Let’s first define what chronic pain is and how common it is.
What is Chronic Pain and Illness
Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than 3 months despite medical treatment or intervention. Chronic pain can continue after an injury or trauma to the body that has been resolved. It can also develop without a physical cause or explanation. Pain can remain active in the central nervous system for weeks, months, years, or even a lifetime after an injury has healed. Your central nervous system can latch on to physical symptoms and recognize them as very painful. Even smaller stimuli that might otherwise go unrecognized to the average person will be very uncomfortable for someone suffering from chronic pain.
Chronic illnesses are generally defined as a condition that lasts 12 months or more and requires ongoing medical care. Chronic illness, like chronic pain, disrupts your daily life. You can no longer enjoy things you once did. Many of those suffering from chronic illness and pain might also reduce their work or not be able to at all. They are also quite often confined to their home.
Some examples of chronic pain and illness include: fibromyalgia, pelvic floor disorders, chronic migraines, shingles, IBS, lower back pain, diabetes, cancer, asthma, and cystic fibrosis.
How Common is Chronic Pain and Illness?
Researchers estimate that close to 50 billion Americans suffer from some type of chronic pain syndrome. It affects more than 20 percent of Americans at any given time. Nearly 45 percent of Americans suffer from at least one type of chronic disease.
The Effect of Chronic Pain on Mental Health
Chronic pain and disease is persistent pain that can sometimes be managed by medications or other medical treatments but this does not always relieve the pain that people suffer from. Medications may be a temporary relief and typically only mask symptoms. Chronic symptoms vary greatly from condition as well as the person suffering. Some people can live daily with debilitating pain while others have pain flares that may strike without notice and last for months at a time.
It’s no wonder that people suffering with chronic illness or pain are at risk for anxiety, depression and even suicide. Their pain often overtakes their daily life. Those living with ongoing pain or illness may have to give up hobbies, outdoor activities, and even their jobs. They may not enjoy the things they once did. Their personal relationships can also be affected as it may be difficult to maintain intimacy with partners. They might also have to rely on friends and family more to help them with personal care and basic tasks like running errands and cooking. This creates a sense of feeling like a burden and shame for asking for help. Others may not understand their situation. People with chronic pain may put on a brave face even though they are greatly suffering. Friends and family perceive that everything is fine. Chronic pain sufferers may even be accused of faking their disease or being over-dramatic.
The physical pain that afflicts their body on a daily basis can create a cycle of anxiety and depression. Chronic pain and illness patients also tend to report physical and mental exhaustion as a common symptom. The body’s constant attempt to manage the pain and the mind’s understandably anxious thoughts creates a vicious cycle. Many people managing constant pain will have trouble getting out of bed and spend much of their time sleeping to avoid how miserable they feel. This puts them at risk for depression.
Others have no option to rest or remain home and must continue to work full time while living with pain. They also suffer physically and emotionally.
The Medical Community’s Response to Chronic Pain & Illness
As if their symptoms or disease weren’t enough, chronic pain warriors must also battle the healthcare system. Of course the medical community has many professionals that are very compassionate and empathetic and focus on healing those who suffer from persistent illness. Unfortunately, chronic pain can be mis or undiagnosed. Symptoms are sometimes downplayed or dismissed by doctors. Medical professionals may also help a patient as much as they can, but if the symptoms persist without adequate treatment options, there is often little relief for a person. When a doctor cannot help an individual alleviate their pain, or they are dismissed by the medical community, patients can feel victimized by the system.
Studies also show that health care provides feel they have inadequate training about how to help their patients with chronic pain. They lack confidence in their ability to provide adequate treatment and they have observed that their patients have a low level of satisfaction with the care they are receiving. Healthcare providers are also cautious about overprescribing prescription medications such as opioids, although this seems to be one of their primary treatment protocols.
Reaching Out for Help
Clearly, chronic pain and illness creates added stress in one’s life. This puts them at increased risk for mental health disorders. From physiological standpoint, these individuals are also pre-disposed to suffer from emotional distress because many physical conditions are associated with abnormal hormone levels and neurotransmitters that can impact a person’s mental health.
They are also a variety of factors as to why a person suffering from persistent pain or illness will not seek out mental health treatment. There is still a stigma in general regarding therapy. People with chronic pain may also feel that a therapist or counselor may not understand what they are going through if they have not experienced it themselves. If they have also already been stigmatized by the medical community, friends, and family, then there may be resistance to speaking about their situation with a professional. These individuals may not have adequate access to health care that provides coverage for mental health treatment. They also may have trouble leaving their home to seek help.
One of the ways that the mental health community can help this population is to provide more outreach and to also create awareness with the public. Partnering with the medical community can also help to de-stigmatize chronic pain and illness.
If you are suffering from a persistent illness or chronic pain, you do not have to suffer in silence. Our team is here to be a shoulder to lean on. We offer empathetic support and advocacy. Please contact our office today.