Trauma and Chronic Pain: Understanding the Mind, Body Connection

As a therapist, the question often comes if one issue can influence another issue a client may be experiencing. The answer is yes. More and more clients report experiencing the effects of chronic pain. What’s more, there are also an increasing amount of clients that consult for trauma. How do these two interrelate? Let’s find out.

The definition of chronic pain is continued physical pain that is longer lasting than what would allow for the natural process of healing. While this definition is crystal clear, experts differ on the definition of trauma. Where they do agree is on common symptoms ranging from hyper arousal, hyper vigilance, numbing, nightmares, flashbacks, feelings of helplessness and avoidance behaviors.

It’s no surprise that symptoms of depression and anxiety are experienced often, following feelings of hopelessness. But more so, being subject to a traumatic event can lead to the development of pain. It’s believed that 15-30% of patients who have chronic pain are also afflicted by PTSD.

We often hear about how emotional stress can have physical effects, such as headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, or stomach aches. And yet, chronic pain can also be experienced for the same reasons. Studies have shown that the more stressed people become, the more their muscles respond

A traumatic event causes the body to go into survival mode, thus making it difficult to return to a more relaxed mode. Staying continuously in survival mode ends up taking its toll. Constant cortisol release can increase blood sugar/blood pressure, which negatively affects the body’s ability to heal. Constant distress eventually creates important physical symptoms.

Furthermore, physical pain can be a manifestation of unfinished business on an emotional level. In fact, it could be an indicator that the nervous system still has remaining trauma. Inadvertently, this can lead a person into staying in survival mode. Chronic pain can even end up becoming a trauma itself.

So what do you do if you’re affected by both conditions? A combination of psychotherapy and physical therapy seems to be the preferred method. Provided the first works with imagery, addressing the nervous system, working with processing and thought management. The second, can include work that aligns the body and involves postural re education. Lymphatic massage also plays a part in rehabilitation, as does walking, acupuncture and craniosacral therapy. 

It’s important to understand that therapy needs to be done on many levels when working on more than a single problem. Taking action in doing so is an empowering move, and potentially the first step to a better and more enjoyable life. Now is the time to say yes to a healthier you.

Ali-John Chaudhary, Ps. Ed, RP, MA

Registered Psychotherapist