Managing Pain and Mental Health Together
If either is left untreated, we may not experience the relief we deserve as soon as when both are managed at the same time
By Sherry McAllister, DC
Chronic pain takes a toll on mental health. The constant discomfort, inability to find lasting relief and uncertainty about the future contributes to depression and anxiety — and can even make physical pain feel worse than it is.
Researchers have discovered that some types of physical pain are not only caused by the body part itself, but rather the relationship between the body part and the nervous system. This link affects our mental health, as well. That does not mean, however, that simply treating pain alone will alleviate mental health challenges. Rather, both need to be managed simultaneously by specialists in each field for faster and lasting relief.
The same way pain and depression feed on each other, receiving help for physical pain and mental health issues at the same time can help us reduce our pain and improve our mental health faster than treating each problem in isolation.
The Mind-Body Connection
Symptoms of depression, such as high cortisol, high adrenaline, insomnia, agitation and anxiety, are caused by a part of our nervous system called the “sympathetic” nervous system, which connects our internal organs to the brain through nerves in the spine. The parasympathetic nervous system, however, can naturally help calm some of this activity.
After reviewing several studies, researchers in 2020 determined that chiropractic adjustment/spinal manipulation, which is effective in managing many types of back, neck and joint pain, as well as headaches, may ignite the parasympathetic system to also ease depression symptoms. Spinal adjustments involve skillfully applying a controlled force to the spine to restore proper alignment.
Conversely, a common type of care for anxiety and depression is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves exploring the root causes of our feelings and developing skills to challenge negative thoughts. CBT has also been found to help people manage physical pain because it reframes experiences and focuses mental energies on activities that alleviate pain and challenges negative thoughts. In a study of 1,331 U.S. Veterans with chronic pain, CBT significantly reduced their negative thoughts about pain as well as pain intensity, pain interference with daily activities, depression and improved their physical quality of life.
Changing the Culture
While seeking help for physical pain is widely accepted in our culture, the same cannot be said for mental/behavioral health conditions. Although improving, mental health therapy still carries a social stigma, particularly among men. These lingering attitudes are tragic considering men are more likely than women to become dependent on drugs and alcohol and commit suicide. Numerous organizations, however, are attempting to change these beliefs and attitudes regarding mental health.
Same Here is a global advocacy organization founded by a former sports executive, Eric Kussin. Kussin’s group recruits athletes, celebrities and experts in mental and behavioral health to change the global conversation and influence others to open up about their challenges. Kussin, who had his own struggles with mental health, recruited Theoren Fleury, a former NHL player, to support the movement. Fleury, a Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist, revealed in his 2009 memoir, Playing With Fire, his traumatic experience with sexual abuse. He dealt with the trauma by misusing alcohol, drugs and gambling and eventually contemplating suicide. Now clean and sober for years, Fleury is a motivational speaker dedicated to helping others discuss traumatic experiences in an empathetic and supportive environment.
Kussin, Fleury and many others like them are trying to change the culture around mental health for men and women to make it more socially acceptable for those suffering from mental illness to seek help for conditions, just as they would for physical pain. If either is left untreated, we may not experience the relief we deserve as soon as when both were managed at the same time.
By confronting our physical and mental health problems together as related conditions and looking at our health holistically – incorporating other lifestyle changes such as exercise, sleep, nutrition, etc.– we can find relief from both and improve our overall well-being.
About the author:
Sherry McAllister, DC, is president of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress (F4CP). A not-for-profit organization with more than 29,000 members, the F4CP informs and educates the general public about the value of chiropractic care delivered by doctors of chiropractic (DCs) and its role in drug-free pain management. Learn more or find a DC at www.f4cp.org/findadoc.