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Emotional States Play a Role in Level of Pain

by Kerin McShane, T.C., M.S., Ph.D.

For thousands of people, pain is a keen reminder of an injury or illness that can lead to equally disabling mental suffering. Out of fear, people whose systems are already compromised may feel their pain greater than they need to, causing an emotional reaction that keeps them feeling worse.

"Pain itself, and the ensuing disruption in normal lifestyle, can lead to depression," says Dr. Michael E. Robinson, Associate Professor of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida's (UF) College of Health Professions. "When people feel helpless and hopeless their pain is more intense."

In fact, the emotional effects of chronic pain-including depression, anger and anxiety-may do more damage to long-term health than the actual physical degree of discomfort, report UF researchers in recent issues of Cranio and The Clinical Journal of Pain.

In studies of patients with chronic facial pain, UF researchers found that the psychological effects of being in pain were more disruptive to patients' daily lives than the pain itself.

Pain involves both emotional and physical components. There is a relationship between tissue damage, a person's emotional state, and previous experiences with painful conditions and the meaning the person gives to the painful sensation. People who sought treatment through the College of Dentistry's Parker E. Mahan Facial Pain Center, reported that due to their pain, routine tasks such as speaking on the telephone, eating, taking medications and carrying on a conversation, had became daily hassles.

"Communication with the world around you becomes stressful because it hurts," Robinson said. "These incidents may seem small in isolation, but the constant needling can become a major life problem.

Researchers compared the degree to which people felt pain from similar injuries based on what the individuals thought the pain meant. Those who did not place a major consequence on the pain, did not feel as great an intensity of pain as those who thought their pain indicated a life-threatening illness. Do not make the mistake, though, of thinking that this higher intensity of pain is any less real, or that the feeling of depression and anxiety you may see in your loved one, is not real. The person truly feels the pain and fear, and the depression.

Pain is a complex disorder with many facets. The best way to diagnose and manage pain is through a team approach involving health care professionals of various disciplines who can look at the patient's condition from several different perspectives.

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