Depression Can Make Pain Worse

Brain imaging shows healthy people who feel sad find pain more unpleasant, researchers say

THURSDAY, June 10 (HealthDay News) -- Being depressed can make real physical pain feel worse, British researchers have found.

Noting that pain and depression often occur at the same time, the current observation blends two competing schools of thought, in which some believe that pain is "all in the head" while others contend that pain is "all in the body."

To see how pain and depression might intersect, the research team -- led by the University of Oxford's Dr. Chantal Berna -- used brain imaging to conduct pain tests on healthy participants who were induced to feel sad.

A depressed mood appeared to affect brain nerve circuitry responsible for emotion, resulting in a stronger perception of pain, according to the report published in the June 1 issue of Biological Psychiatry.

"When the healthy people were made sad by negative thoughts and depressing music, we found that their brains processed pain more emotionally, which lead to them finding the pain more unpleasant," Berna said in a news release from the journal's publisher.

Berna's team theorized that one's ability to control the negative emotions linked to pain are short-circuited by depression, leading to a bigger punch when pain hits. In other words, depression may not only be a consequence of being in pain. It might actually exacerbate pain, making it worse than it would be for those in a positive frame of mind.

"Our research suggests depressed mood leads to maladaptive changes in brain function associated with pain, and that depressed mood itself could be a target for treatment by medicines or psychotherapy in this context," Berna explained in the news release.

Following this line of research, the next step would be to study patients with chronic pain, because they often also suffer from depression, the researchers noted. The goal would be to find ways to more effectively treat the millions of people worldwide who experience chronic pain and depression, the authors explained.

More information

For more on pain and depression, visit National Pain Foundation.

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