—by Cate Stevenson, BA
Have you ever wondered if there’s a connection between pain and depression? Does depression make physical pain worse? Does physical pain cause depression? How much are the two linked?
Researchers have been pondering these questions for a long time. But, until recently, not many studies have been conducted to explore the link between these two conditions. Like much of Western medicine, what happens in the body is often separated from what happens in the mind. Though of course there are inadvertent exceptions to this separation. Sometimes you might be told that pain is “in your head.” Being told that can be very frustrating. In part, because physical pain is real whatever its origin.
British researchers have just explored this grey area between physical pain and mental state and have found some very interesting results. The research team began by noting that pain and depression often occur at the same time and that there are two basic schools of thought: some believe that pain is a mental state; while others contend that pain is primarily a body state.
To see how pain and depression might intersect, the research team used brain imaging to conduct pain tests on healthy participants. The participants were made to feel sad, at which point the researchers jumped in to find out what was happening in the brain.
They found that a depressed mood appeared to affect brain nerve circuitry. In particular, circuitry responsible for emotion was triggered, resulting in a stronger perception of pain. In other words, when the healthy participants were made sad by negative thoughts and depressing music, the research team found that their brains processed pain more emotionally, which caused them to find the pain more unpleasant.
The research team theorized that the ability to control the negative emotions linked to pain are short-circuited by depression, leading to stronger pain symptoms when they hit. It may very well be that depression is not only a consequence of being in pain, but might actually increase pain, making it worse than it would be for those in a positive frame of mind.
The research team says that their study proves depressed mood leads to negative changes in brain function when associated with pain. They hope that a depressed mood in and of itself could be a target for treatment by medicines or psychotherapy in those dealing with physical pain.
For those suffering from chronic pain, this study may be a very beneficial breakthrough. If depression caused by physical pain could be averted by blocking the negative changes that can occur in the brain’s circuitry, then perhaps pain levels will fall and the cycle of chronic symptoms could be broken.