Depression Caused by Chronic Back Pain



March 30, 2012

Depression from back pain is a common mental condition. Statistics indicate that a large percentage of people with chronic pain also experience depression. And studies conducted in large populations have revealed that the worse the pain, the more common the depression.

The study results make perfect sense. After all, back pain can affect our lives in many ways, such as the following.

  • Poor sleep at night, which can cause fatigue at daytime.
  • Impaired ability to stay active, which can be extremely frustrating if you are an active person.
  • Reduced productivity at work, which can lower your performance score, and may even cost you your job and thus lead to financial difficulties.
  • Strained relationships with family members and friends.

All these problems damage the quality of our lives. And over time, they can lead to depression.

In fact, research has found scientific ground for depression from back pain. Apparently, the same neurotransmitters, chemicals transmitting signals between neurons, are involved in both the delivery of pain signals to the brain and the regulation of mood. Chronic pain can change the functioning of the nervous system, thus affecting the nervous system’s ability to regulate mood.

Diagnosis of depression from back pain

Despite the high prevalence, depression from back pain is often undiagnosed. One reason is that when talking to doctors, patients with chronic back pain often complain only about physical symptoms caused by back pain, but not their emotional conditions. As a result, doctors may not realize that their patients are suffering from depression as well. Also, depression and back pain often share common symptoms, such as a lack of motivation, aches, and fatigue. This makes it challenging for doctors to diagnose depression from back pain.

Unlike diagnosing back pain through lab and imaging tests, there is, unfortunately, no such test that can help doctors confirm depression from back pain. Talking to patients appears to be the most effective way for doctors to find out patients’ mental conditions. In addition, doctors often use a depression questionnaire to evaluate the severity of patients’ depression. Patients can answer the questionnaire on their own and discuss the results with their doctors.

Managing back pain depression

Depression and chronic back pain are intertwined. On the one hand, chronic back pain can lead to depression. On the other hand, depression can intensify back pain and make back pain treatment less effective.

Chronic back pain and back pain depression can be managed separately. Back pain depression can be improved by reducing the pain. Once the pain is reduced with proper treatment, patients generally feel better about their lives. They may sleep better at night, become more active at daytime, and are easier to get along. As a result, they feel less depressed. Similarly, improved back pain depression can make the pain feel more bearable and treatment more effective.

Chronic back pain and back pain depression can also be treated together. Because of the intertwined relationship between chronic back pain and back pain depression, it makes sense to treat the two conditions together.

The following treatment options can improve the two conditions at the same time.

  • Antidepressants: Antidepressants are often used to treat chronic pain. Why? It’s because the same nerves that help the brain perceive the pain is also involved in depression. While improving the depression by influencing the brain chemistry, antidepressants also reduce the pain signals received by the brain.
  • Exercise: It’s hard to exercise and stay active when you are in pain. However, appropriate exercise can help you reduce pain by strengthening your muscle and improving your posture. Regular exercise can also help you feel less depressed by reducing stress and improving mood.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Also known as talking therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapy that helps patients become aware of negative thinking, and respond to challenging situations in effective ways. With the help of a therapist, the patient suffering from chronic pain and back pain depression can feel a sense of control over their pain and life.

In summary, chronic back pain and depression are often linked together. Chronic pain can lead to depression, and depression can turn around to intensify the pain. Although improving one of them could make the other better, it’s more effective if both of them are treated at the same time.

So if you are suffering from chronic back pain, pay attention to your mental condition as well. If you feel depressed, make sure you let your doctor know.