Do you know the link between your chronic pain and stress?

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For Mental Health Awareness month, we’re taking the opportunity to share how your mental health and stress affect your chronic nerve pain.

An estimated 50 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain severe enough to frequently limit life and work activities, according to a Centers for Disease Control 2018 report. Chronic pain can be debilitating and hinder independence, making it one of the most common reasons adults seek medical attention. ​

Neuropathy or chronic nerve pain can be tortuous to those who suffer from it. Treating this kind of pain can be tricky, while physical treatments such as INF™ have been proven an effective way to reduce the pain that patients experience. In order to provide wholesome care, we cannot neglect the mental component as well.​

With May being National Mental Health Awareness month, we’re taking this opportunity to share how your mental health and prolonged stress affect your nerve pain, as well as what you can do to decrease your stress and improve your mental health.  ​

Brian Distelberg, PhD, MA, Director of the Behavioral Health Institute at Loma Linda University Health, says pain and stress are interrelated. ​

“When someone experiences pain, the body releases anxiety and stress hormones. This can come in handy if a person is injured or in a situation where they need to get out,” Distelberg says. “However, when we look at an individual who is constantly experiencing pain, then their body is also constantly producing these toxic hormones as well. Stress isn’t an intangible thing — it’s a damaging chemical to the body when prolonged.” ​

Research has shown that individuals who are under this constant state of stress experience a decrease or damage of cognitive function to the brain, lowered IQ, and, as a result of the chemical response, the pain becomes more pronounced. ​More pain, more stress. More stress, more pain. This cycle can be challenging to break for many individuals who suffer from chronic illness or condition that causes debilitating pain such as arthritis, diabetessickle cell disease, or a treatment like chemotherapy.

 ​At the Neuropathic Therapy Center, we view whole person care as vital to both decreasing stress and reducing pain,” says Mark Bussell, DPT, BS, OCS, pioneer of the INF treatment. “We feel there is a direct relationship between pain and stress for those with chronic nerve pain. Bringing circulation to back to the nerves in our patients is one way we can help reduce their pain and stress."

It’s easy to see how quickly individuals can develop depression or anxiety requiring mental health care in addition to their physical treatment to help break the cycle. Every individual is unique — and so is their level of pain and the associated severity of effects on their mental health. As a result, there isn’t a blanketed treatment option for everyone.  Combined with the stigma of mental health conditions, individuals can often go undiagnosed. ​

“Once you treat the mental health component, the physical health treatment for these kinds of conditions, therefore, becomes more effective,” Distelberg says. ​

So how do we combat this? A great place to start is with an honest conversation with your primary care physician, your specialist or nurse. Distelberg says these individuals are trained for mental health screenings and can refer you to professionals who can best determine the care you need.   ​

“For those with moderate stress, a group therapy program or a weekly session with a professional can be enough with their physical treatments to reduce their pain,” Distelberg says. “However, those with more severe levels of stress or additional stressors may not find the same value in those and may need a deeper program such as the MEND program here at Loma Linda University Health.”​

MEND is a comprehensive program offered by LLUH’s Behavioral Health Institute designed to support the patient and his/her family in balancing emotional health and a significant medical illness or treatment. The program combines psychiatric care, therapy and a case manager to help with the mental health component while communicating back to the patient’s nurses and primary care physician.​

“For someone with a debilitating pain disorder, there can be added stressors, such as financial, transportation, family, purpose, etc. With MEND we try to understand the whole perspective and take on those challenges in one spot,” Distelberg says. ​

What if seeing a mental health professional or MEND isn’t something you need? That’s okay; everyone’s stress levels are different. Distelberg says it’s about finding ways to take your mind off the pain and reduce your stress. Distelberg recommends a few methods:

  • Meditation
  • Motivational Interviewing
  • Spiritual connection and purpose
  • Staying connected to family and friends

“The primary thing you are fighting against is isolation,” Distelberg says, “The pain is going to be an easy thing that prevents you from being with family, friends, church, community etc. You have to push against that and stay active in the things that are meaningful to you.”​

It’s important to remember that you are not alone in your fight with chronic nerve pain or mental health. If you’re suffering from chronic nerve pain, learn more about how INF™ can help reduce your physical pain, and remember your mental health is just as important in your pain treatment. Discover what Behavioral Health programs are available to you at Loma Linda University Health by visiting lluh.org/behavioral-health. 

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