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If you've ever been sick or injured, chances are that it put you in a pretty bad mood. Experiencing pain has been known to exacerbate other symptoms, such as stress and anxiety. But unfortunately, just like pain can make you feel worse mentally, your mind can cause pain without a physical source, or make preexisting pain increase or linger. This phenomenon is called psychogenic pain, and it occurs when your pain is related to underlying psychological, emotional, or behavioral factors.
What Causes Psychogenic Pain?
It's not entirely clear why your brain sometimes causes pain when there seems to be no physical source. Some theories suggest that it's due to pain memory, a condition that causes the nervous system to hold onto pain long after an injury has healed. Others suggest that this pain may be caused by signals getting confused within the brain. The normal sensation of pain and where it's located in the body is generally sent through nerve receptors that transmit information to the spine, which then sends it up to the brain. However, there's room for messages to get lost along the way from point A to point B, making it possible for the brain to interpret mental distress as physical pain. Some psychological factors that might cause physical pain include anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, and stress.
What Types of Pain Does It Cause?
Just like pain caused by a physical stimulus, psychogenic pain can be acute or chronic. Acute pain is sharp but brief, and usually doesn't require treatment. Chronic pain is persistent, lasting anywhere from a few weeks to several years. Because of the continued suffering of chronic pain, treatment is highly encouraged. Chronic psychogenic pain can be felt all over the body with varying intensity, though it most commonly presents as a headache, a muscle ache, abdominal pain, or back pain.
How Is It Treated?
Treatment often depends on the type of pain being experienced and if you have any history of psychological distress. A good health care provider will test for any possible physical causes before giving a diagnosis of psychogenic pain. From there, they will likely follow these steps:
- Treat the pain. Depending on the type of pain, physical therapy, medication, and dietary adjustments may be used to reduce or relieve the symptoms.
- Treat the psychological problem. Together, a therapist and the patient can try to determine the underlying mental cause and take steps to treat it. They may recommend neurological medications that have been proven to reduce pain caused by mental distress.
- Try alternative treatments. Health care providers may offer some alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and occupational therapy, to assist with the healing process.
Depending on the underlying psychological problem, some patients can find relief quite quickly, while others might take longer. Unfortunately, psychogenic pain and other seemingly invisible disorders have been met with skepticism and stigmatization from friends, family members, places of work, and even health care providers.
It's important to have patience and understand that while your pain may be caused by a mental issue, it's still very real and you deserve to be taken seriously. If you have concerns about how to explain your condition to others, discuss it with your primary care provider or mental health specialist.