Under the Hood

Chronic Pain: Should You See A Psychologist?

You might want to meet a psychologist to help you treat chronic pain. Sounds weird but it can be effective since there is a link between long lasting body pain and emotion. 

Studies show that chronic pain can disrupt some parts of the brain that control emotion and sensory features of pain. A pain that stays for more than six months can cause frustration, distress or anxiety, according to Harvard Medical School. 

What makes chronic pain more complicated is that the negative emotions it triggers may also make a person’s physical condition worse. 

“Chronic pain increases the risk of depression and anxiety, and depression and anxiety strongly predict the development of chronic pain,” according to David Boyce, an instructor in anesthesiology at HMS, and Salim Zerriny, who is part of Brigham and Women's Hospital Anesthesiology Program. 

The two experts cited that the people with fibromyalgia or irritable bowel syndrome commonly experience the combination of emotional and physical effects of chronic pain. 

“Pain, depression and anxiety travel through similar pathways along your nervous system and share many of the same biological mechanisms,” Boyce and Zerriny said in a blog post. “One of the areas in the brain that receives pain signals — specifically, the limbic region — shares many of the same messengers as the mood signals.”

How Can Psychologists Help You?

Many psychotherapeutic treatments are available to help manage the effects of chronic pain. Experts also recommend meditation and exercise to further speed up recovery and prevent further effects of the condition. 

People with chronic pain face a number of challenges that may discourage them from taking treatments. A psychologist can help with pain catastrophizing, fear of pain and trauma. 

Chronic pain can make people feel helpless and focus only on the negative effects of pain. Having more negative thoughts can affect emotional and social functioning. 

Some people may also develop a fear of pain. This leads to less physical or social activities since an individual fears having another injury and develops pain-avoidant behaviors. 

A psychologist can help patients change how they look at pain. Pain acceptance has been proven highly effective to reduce the emotional impact of chronic pain since people develop an accepting attitude towards the pain.
Other treatments that may also help people improve their conditions are cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction and hypnosis. 

Experts also recommend biofeedback, which teaches patients to observe their body functions such as heart rate, muscle tension and skin temperature, to see their involuntary responses to stress. 

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