Chronic Pain and the Link to Mental Health

Mental Health

Tammy George

Elderly man lying in bed with depression because he's suffering from chronic pain.

If you’ve suffered from chronic pain, you may know it affects more than your physical health. It impacts on your wellbeing and your ability to function at work and home. The pain can impact your social activities, which can decrease self-esteem, trigger fatigue, or cause concentration and sleeping issues. For some people, it can be a vicious circle. As their chronic pain continues, their mental health declines, making their physical pain less bearable.

What is Chronic Pain? 

Pain is considered chronic when it lasts more than three months and interferes with daily life. The pain may be constant or come and go in any part of the body. Around 1 in 5 Australians over the age of 45 suffer from chronic pain most days of the week. 

Mild or severe chronic pain can affect anyone but statistically, sufferers are more likely to be older females, who have long-term health conditions that limit their daily activities. Other risk factors include low levels of physical activity, smoking, poor socioeconomic backgrounds and being overweight or obese. In 2018, productivity loss and healthcare expenses due to chronic pain cost the Australian economy an estimated $73.2 billion.

Chronic pain is described in many different ways; from aching, burning and shooting, to throbbing and even stinging. Acute pain is different to chronic pain because it’s more short-lived and disappears after the body heals the soft tissue damage caused by an injury or illness. Chronic pain can be caused by soft tissue damage from an acute condition or chronic condition, as well as changes in the nervous system, meaning nerves continue to signal pain even after the condition has healed.

Senior woman massaging her hands together to relieve her chronic pain and discomfort.

Conditions That Cause Chronic Pain and Mental Health Problems

There are some chronic pain conditions that impact the sufferer’s mental health more than others. These include: 

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Migraines

  • Back pain

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Psoriatic arthritis

  • Pelvic pain

Strategies for Coping with Chronic Pain

For sufferers of chronic pain, sometimes it can feel like time stands still. Luckily, there are some strategies to help people tackle the discomfort.

Pain Medication

In addition to the medications used to treat the condition directly, a sufferer will usually need some form of pain relief medication. Over the counter medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen may work for some. Others may need opioid drugs which have a morphine effect prescribed by their doctor and, in severe cases, treatment in hospital. Medication can reduce the pain to a more manageable level so a person can more easily continue their daily life.

Elderly man looking through his pain medication to relieve his chronic pain at his dining table.

Physical Therapies

Research and experience shows that active self-management strategies can improve a person’s ability to function, do daily activities and quality of life. Osteopaths, physiotherapists, chiropractors or exercise physiologists may prepare a treatment plan that progressively works on problem areas of the body. Some people who suffer from chronic pain can benefit from physical therapies. This may involve a program of motion therapy, muscle strengthening and posture training.

Complementary Therapies

Massage, acupuncture and aromatherapy are used to help reduce the impact of chronic pain. Some sufferers use nutritional supplements, vitamins, naturopathic nutrition and diet to help ease the pain.

Other people have found relief through techniques that enhance the mind, such as meditation, counselling, prayer, music or art therapy. Energy therapies such as tai chi, reiki and therapeutic touch are also used by some chronic pain sufferers.

A group of people performing Tai chi in the park to help relieve symptoms of chronic pain.

The Link Between Pain and Mental Health

Chronic pain can be the trigger for a range of mental health problems. Ongoing pain can cause depression, anxiety, panic disorder and other mental health problems. 

The Impact of Chronic Pain on Lifestyle

Chronic pain can interrupt almost every aspect of a person’s life. When pain is severe or ongoing, many workers have to take workers compensation, resign from their job or cut back their hours. Stopping work can mean they lose their sense of purpose, relationships with colleagues and income, which can lead to depression and anxiety.

Some health conditions mean a person can’t exercise or enjoy their usual hobbies due to pain or a lack of mobility. Social connections with family and friends can be lost if it becomes difficult to leave the house. A reduction in enjoyable activities can impact on well-being and mental health.

For some people, chronic pain can lead to alcohol and substance abuse, which can also have a detrimental effect on mental health. Furthermore, pain often interrupts sleep which can exacerbate poor mental health.

Ongoing rehabilitation, appointments or doing physical therapy exercises can become a chore and an unwanted expense, which could lead to motivation levels dropping.

A woman comforting a man suffering from chronic pain and depression in a group therapy session.

Mental and Physical Health Are Often Separate

Everyone experiences pain and mental health differently - not everyone with chronic pain will suffer adverse mental health. A person who has had a mental illness in the past may suffer a setback to their mental health as soon as their physical health deteriorates. Another person may live with the same chronic condition and pain for years without any impact to their mental health.

Some mental health conditions can make physical pain worse. When a person suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression, the pain of their condition is often greater than when they’re mentally healthy. 

Mental Health Treatments

There are multiple treatment methods available to help with mental health. What works for one person may not work for another, so it’s often a process of trial and error to find the one or a combination of treatments that suit the individual.

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Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has been found to be an effective treatment for a range of mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. A therapist works with a patient to uncover unhealthy patterns of thought that may be causing self-destructive beliefs, feelings and behaviours.


A general practitioner or psychiatrist may prescribe medications such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety and mood stabilisers that can help a person with their mental health.

Change in Lifestyle 

What many people don’t realise is that they can make a big improvement in their mental health by making simple lifestyle changes.

Going for a walk outside, particularly in nature, can help. Exercise releases endorphins which are nature’s pain relief and can increase a person’s sense of wellbeing. Joining a local group or making more of an effort to see family and friends can reduce social isolation. Eating a healthy diet can make you feel better and help control your weight which often contributes to feelings of depression. Taking up meditation, yoga or deep breathing can make a significant difference in wellbeing.

A senior couple walking through the park to improve their physical health and mental health.


If you or someone you know is suffering from poor mental health, it always helps to talk about it. The importance of seeking help should not be understated, and there are plenty of mental health resources available to provide adequate support.

Visit some of these websites for information on mental health.

If you prefer to make contact via Live Chat services, try one of the following organisations. 

You can also gain support by sharing experiences with other people who are affected by mental illness via online forums.

Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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