September is Pain Awareness Month in the U.S., and it’s unfortunately a topic most Americans are all too familiar with. CNN Health reports that an estimated 51 million people in the US, or about 20% of the adult population, suffers from chronic pain, or pain that lasts for more than three months.1 Chronic pain often leads to a host of other struggles including substantial healthcare costs, increased difficulty in the ability to complete daily activities, and lost productivity at work, making pain management an extensive yet difficult endeavor.
Chronic pain can also lead to an increase in mental health disorders. Pain and mental health disorders like depression often have an unfortunate cyclical effect, with each feeding into the other, exacerbating the initial concern and subsequently flowing into the other. The National Library of Medicine explains that depression “is a positive predictor of the development of chronic pain, and chronic pain increases the risk of developing depression.”2 According to the American Psychiatric Association, it is estimated that up to 45% of people who suffer from chronic pain also experience depression.3
The relationship between pain and mental health is closer, biologically speaking, than you may think. Physiologically, there is overlap between physical and emotional pain, tracing back to the brain. Some of the same areas of the brain that are responsible for signaling pain also contribute to anxiety and depression, and two different kinds of neurotransmitters — serotonin and norepinephrine — are part of both the physical pain and depression processes, too.4
Though the brain processes different types of pain differently, there is research that suggests that the neural pathways triggered through experiencing pain are similar, so the way our brains react to the pain — whether physical or mental — is similar.5
Pain Management for Physical and Mental Pain
No matter the origin of physical pain or mental pain, several actionable steps can actually help combat both simultaneously.
- Focus on getting good sleep. For those who live with a mental health disorder, sleep is often one aspect that suffers. Insomnia can be a symptom of both mental health disorder and chronic pain, as both can make it hard to get comfortable or relaxed. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night. But don’t just aim for the right number of hours; get into a good routine to help sleep come easier and also be more rejuvenating. Wind down at night by avoiding blue light from electronics screens. Create a dark, quiet environment for your sleep. Try to go to bed at the same time every night so you get into a rhythm and your body knows what to expect. Don’t eat too late at night, or your body’s digestive systems will be working when they should be resting.
- Get moving. Exercise may not be the easiest task to initiate if you’re in pain or lacking motivation. But exercise is not only good for physical health, but mental health as well. Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine, which help with both mood and pain management. When you’re experiencing physical pain, your movement and range of motion may be limited. However, movement also helps jumpstart the flow of blood and oxygen through your body, which helps decrease pain. If you have trouble committing to a full 30-minute workout, start with a 10-minute walk. Oftentimes just the act of starting to move your body will set off a reaction of motivation. Use a support strap to support joints and a compression wrap to help relieve swelling and inflammation.
- Eat healthy food. A healthy, balanced diet correctly fuels our bodies with the right kind of energy. But a balanced diet is good for mental health, too. Take in plenty of fruits and vegetables and avoid things that provide little to no nutrition, like foods high in sugar or sodium. Stay away from depressants, such as alcohol. Remember to stay hydrated, too. While water intake recommendations are different depending on each person, a good rule of thumb is about 8 glasses of water per day.
- Engage in relaxation techniques. Meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises can help create a sense of calm and focus, which may help decrease symptoms related to mental health disorders.6 These similar practices can help the body physically as well, like improving chronic pain symptoms like flexibility and inflammation.
Whether you take vitamin supplements or you’re getting your daily nutrients through food, here are some of the vitamins to get in your diet to help with both physical and mental health. Disclaimer: Consult your physician before taking any vitamins.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine vitamin” since we get some through exposure to the sun. People who live in cooler climates are familiar with seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression commonly experienced in the winter months when exposure to the sun decreases significantly and less vitamin D is absorbed through the sun because of shorter days and less time spent outside. In addition to helping combat the chemical change in the brain associated with seasonal affective disorder, vitamin D is good for the health of the muscles and immune system.7
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3s, commonly consumed in fish and fish oil supplements, are good for heart health, brain health, and inflammation in the body. They’re also believed to be helpful in addressing depression, as they have a mood-stabilizing effect.7
- From a physical health standpoint, folate — most commonly associated with being important for pregnancy — is important for healthy hair, skin, and nails. But folate is also associated with mental health, as a higher intake is said to help lower risk of depression.7
If you’ve experienced the synchronous symptoms of both physical pain and mental health struggles, know that you’re not alone. The connection between the two are more common than it may seem. Take action to combat the symptoms you’re feeling, knowing that addressing one may help also address the other.
Above all, if you’re needing help with pain management when it comes to physical or mental pain, talk to your doctor. They will know the right path for you to take to get you back to a healthy mental and physical state.
- CNN Health: Chronic pain is substantially more common in the US than diabetes, depression and high blood pressure, study finds. https://www.cnn.com/2023/05/16/health/chronic-pain-study/index.html
- National Library of Medicine: Pain and Psychology—A Reciprocal Relationship. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5472077/
- American Psychiatric Association: Chronic Pain and Mental Health Often Interconnected. https://www.psychiatry.org/news-room/apa-blogs/chronic-pain-and-mental-health-interconnected
- Harvard Medical School: Pain, anxiety, and depression. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/pain-anxiety-and-depression
- Forbes: Emotional & Physical Pain Are Almost The Same – To Your Brain. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2020/02/14/emotional--physical-pain-are-almost-the-sameto-your-brain/
- National Library of Medicine: How Might Yoga Help Depression? A Neurobiological Perspective. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3293477/
- Mental Health America: Healthy Diet: Eating with Mental Health in Mind. https://mhanational.org/healthy-diet-eating-mental-health-mind