MENTAL HEALTH CAN BE A CHRONIC PAIN

Unless you’re Superman, you will have experienced some level of physical pain at some point in time.

Believe it or not, that’s a good thing - in small doses. Pain is the brain’s in-built alarm system that warns us to stop doing things that are harmful. For example, if you touch a hot plate, your brain will tell you to remove your hand to avoid third degree burns.

Pain can manifest as a sharp, dull, numb, burning or aching sensation anywhere in the body; and can be caused by illness, accident, injury, nerve damage, genetic disorders or stress.

While some painful conditions can be resolved relatively quickly through rest, medication, injections, natural therapies, physical therapies, massage, lifestyle changes, exercise or even surgery; unfortunately, others are alleviated so easily.

Pain that lasts beyond six months (chronic pain) is not natural and can affect anyone’s mental health considerably. Pain Australia reports that chronic pain affects approximately 13% of Australians at any given time; almost 45% of Australians living with chronic pain also have a mental illness (more than double the general population figure, which sits at 20%); and suicide rates are reportedly 2-3 times higher for sufferers than that of the national average.

Living with chronic pain can cause physical discomfort, disrupt daily routines, limit exercise, decrease sexual activity, interfere with your social life, make work or study difficult, increase weight gain and cause distress, anxiety or depression.

This can be extremely isolating, especially when the people around you don’t understand what you’re going through. Unhelpful responses can include flippant or minimising comments (e.g. “you’ll be right” or “you look fine to me”), expecting you to ‘get on with things’ too quickly, expressing unrealistic expectations for what you can/can’t do, judging or comparing your pain to someone else’s, ‘guilt trips’, not believing you or implying “it’s all in your head”.

Even with the best of intentions, these responses have the ability to create feelings of pressure, frustration, uselessness and distress; adding further insult to injury.

This is especially the case for people living with ‘invisible pain’. Whereas ‘obvious’ pain (e.g. a broken leg in a cast), that is common, diagnosable, recognisable and relatable can easily garner sympathy; invisible pain doesn’t bare any physical signs (e.g. scars or bandages) and may attract apathy, ignorance, misunderstanding or a lack of empathy from others.

On the surface, sufferers may ‘appear’ fine – even fit and healthy - which can feed into the false narrative of equating chronic pain with exaggerating, lying, trying to get attention or experiencing a mental health ‘episode’. Paradoxically, it is this very treatment of people that can actually cause or exacerbate their mental health concerns.

In reality, there are many very real physical causes of pain including autoimmune diseases (e.g. arthritis), migraines, muscle strains, RSI, myalgias, nerve damage, cancer, IBS and infectious diseases (e.g. Lyme disease).

Painful conditions that are widely unknown, misunderstood, difficult to diagnose or contentious amongst the medical community (such as Lyme disease and formerly Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) can cause even more distress - especially when sufferers are told that their condition “doesn’t exist”.

Sufferers may have: spent a great deal of time, energy and money seeking a diagnosis and undergoing treatments that haven’t worked; been told (or had it implied) many times that “it’s all in your head”; grown frustrated with conflicting medical advice and begun to mistrust or avoid further treatment altogether; begun to question their own sanity.

These experiences - and the fact that our culture rewards people who ‘soldier on’ - can understandably cause people to seek ‘band aid’ solutions, simply to function, maintain a sense of normalcy and ‘push through’, despite being in extreme pain.

This can be extremely problematic, as the overuse/abuse of prescription (and formerly over-the-counter) medication (e.g. codeine) has led to a widespread ‘opioid crisis’ (yes, we also have one in Australia).

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare provides some alarming statistics: an estimated 1.4 million Australians are currently struggling with opioid addiction; there are approximately 150 hospitalisations per day due to opioids purchased legally; and up to 70% of drug-related deaths are due to prescription medications.

Prescription drug dependency can create yet another layer of difficulty for and comorbidity with the mental health concerns of people living with chronic pain.

If you are struggling, it is just as (if not more) important to seek support for your mental health concerns, as you would for any physical pain.

In an emergency, call 000. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 any time for free.

Artius Health’s team of qualified, caring and experienced Psychologists offer ongoing support for people living with chronic pain, as well as their families and carers. We also have a Sports Psychologist who specialises in assisting athletes of all ability levels to return to training and reach their fitness goals.

Pension Card and Health Care Card holders are bulk-billed and some NDIS plans may cover the cost of treatment. We accept NDIS, DVA, WorkCover, Private Insurance & PHN referrals; although referrals are not mandatory to access this service.

For more information or to make an appointment today, please visit www.artius.com.au, phone 1300 764 003 or email health@artius.com.au.