Sadly, over 14 million people worldwide live in perpetual pain. In the United States, it’s estimated that about 20.4% of adults live with constant chronic pain.
That is a lot of people who live in pain, and it’s nearly the same amount of people will suffer from a mental illness in any given year. There will be some overlap in those statistics, which means the number of people suffering with pain could be a lot higher.
We want to play our part in raising public awareness of this suffering by recognizing that September is Pain Awareness Month. It’s our hope that chronic pain becomes better understood and de-stigmatized so that more people can get the proper help that they need instead of self-medicating to minimize the symptoms.
Understanding the Persistent Pain Cycle
Chronic pain can become a persistent-pain-cycle that feels impossible to escape. Conditions such as chronic back problems, arthritis, headaches and migraines can all cause debilitating physical pain that make daily life difficult.
When a person lives with physical pain for an extended period of time, it makes it challenging to do many of the things that will help overcome the pain, such as exercise and proper sleep.
Without adequate exercise or sleep, the brain doesn’t function normally and the physical pain can be transformed into emotional pain too.
Emotional pain is one of the most enduring pains a human can feel. Disconnection from our peers, environment or family (often due to trauma) can be as painful as physical pain and often leads to stress, depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
Tension and anxiety can result from both physical and emotional pain, and from the substance abuse itself, creating a vicious pain cycle.
When Pain Leads to Addiction
Addiction is a common response to unmanaged emotional trauma and unresolved physical pain. Alcohol or drugs give a temporary (and much needed) relief to unexplainable and unbearable pain.
From an emotional standpoint, many people wonder, what comes first, mental illness like anxiety disorder or alcohol or substance abuse? Many times it’s trauma leading to intolerable pain and mental illness that results in substance abuse.
It’s almost unthinkable that unmanaged pain can lead to addiction and mental health issues, but it actually happens quite frequently, and it severely complicates recovery. Once it progresses to addiction, it’s necessary to seek a dual diagnosis treatment program to recover successfully.
Resolving the addiction itself is just the tip of the iceberg. We then need to get to the root of the problem and heal the pain that is resulting in mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Sure, many people might be naturally susceptible to these conditions, but there are ways to manage symptoms in a holistic way to ease the pain and enjoy life.
Often the depths of our pain that has built up over the years can seem totally unmanageable. Understanding that pain, especially pain that others cannot perceive like emotional pain, is very real and perfectly normal is the first step to healing.
In-fact emotional pain can leave lasting physical scars on our internal organs in addition to our central nervous system because stress suppresses the immune system and makes us more susceptible to illness.
For those afflicted with daily and recurring physical pain, reaching for a substance like drugs or alcohol to cope is just as common as for those with emotional pain.
Some people receive legal prescription medications for pain, but many don’t and they self-medicate by any means they can find.
Sleep Disturbance in the Cycle of Pain
One of the common side effects of pain is sleep disturbance. This may seem innocent enough, but sleep disturbance can actually alter our genes and lead to chronic disease, and scientific studies have proven this is a fairly common occurrence.
Studies show that shift workers are more likely to fall prey to metabolic illness due to their disturbed sleep patterns. When we are lacking in sleep, our DNA begins to transform via a process called DNA methylation, which basically occurs when genes switch on or off (in this case) due to a lack of sleep.
The fact that the very DNA of our bodies can be altered due to lack of sleep is quite frightening. On the flip side, there is hope, because the fact that external or lifestyle factors can change our genes, means that we can reverse the cycle of pain.
Sleep is essential for detoxifying the brain and boosting the immune system – without sleep the mind and body begins to break down. So, as you can see, it’s not just the pain that affects us – other areas of our life are impacted heavily when we are in constant pain.
Ironically, being in pain can make it difficult to get restful sleep. Yet at the same time, not getting proper sleep can leave the body in a mental and physical state of pain. Hopefully by improving one of these issues, the other will also soon be on the mend.
Dealing With Pain
When we are in a lot of pain it can change our mood – sometimes significantly, resulting in depression and stress.
These emotional responses are normal, but they become exaggerated when we medicate ourselves, either legally with prescription medications to soothe the pain, or illegally with drugs such as opioid painkillers that may lead to dependence or addiction.
For people suffering with pain, it’s crucial to get help from a medical professional that can treat the symptoms and create a plan to heal the body and mind.
There is so much help available today that nobody should have to live with unresolved pain. Unfortunately many do, and they self-medicate instead of working to alleviate the symptoms with a medical or holistic plan of action.
Pain Awareness Month is the perfect time to overcome pain issues that make life unbearable. Instead of reaching for a way to cope on your own, ask for help from someone that can actually help.
You don’t have to go through the pain alone. Getting professional help can speed up the much-needed shift in your life to free you from the cycle of pain and live a healthier and happier life.