The Mighty Logo

Why Chronic Pain Treatment Is Suicide Prevention

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. If you need support right now, you can call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or text HOME to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line if you are in the U.S. A list of crisis centers around the world can be found here.

People with chronic pain don’t merely “hurt.” We live curtailed lives. Simple pleasures like walking in the park, playing with children, or enjoying a meal become distant memories or unattainable dreams. Employment can be disrupted or lost, relationships strained, and self-worth eroded. And it’s not just a “bad day” or a “rough patch.” It’s a relentless, 24/7 ordeal that doesn’t let up. Imagine the worst pain you’ve ever felt — now picture that pain as your constant companion, not just for days or weeks, but for months and years. At its worst, chronic pain pushes people toward a cliff-edge decision — suicide.

One in five adults who live with chronic pain had suicidal ideation, and 8% to 41% of those adults attempted suicide at least once. – Practical Pain Management

The assertion that “chronic pain treatment is suicide prevention” is not a hyperbolic claim but an urgent call to recognize a health care crisis hiding in plain sight. So far, society, health care providers, and policymakers have viewed chronic pain as merely a “physical health issue” often treated with medication or therapy. This is about saving lives.

Correlation Between Chronic Pain and Suicidality

When you look at the data, one thing becomes painfully clear: people with chronic pain are at a heightened risk of suicidal ideation, attempts, and dying by suicide.

“Adults with chronic pain have two to three times the risk of dying from suicide compared to those without these conditions,” according to the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

There’s a real connection between living with chronic pain and struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, as shown by research. A study published in Psychological Medicine revealed that between 5% and 14% of people with chronic pain experience suicide attempts, with nearly 20% grappling with suicidal ideation.

Adding more concern, a 2023 study found that people dealing with the intersection of chronic non-cancer pain (CNCP) and comorbid opioid use disorder (OUD) are three times more likely to try to harm themselves than those dealing only with pain.

All these findings highlight how important it is to help people manage their physical pain and support their mental well-being to prevent such tragic outcomes.

Each number represents a real person, enduring relentless emotional and physical challenges every waking minute.

Living with chronic pain is exhausting — not just physically, but emotionally. Every day is a balancing act. You’re trying to be a parent, spouse, friend, employee, and, simultaneously, a full-time pain manager. It’s like juggling; only the balls are on fire, and you’re not sure when they’ll cool down. This emotional exhaustion can make you susceptible to mood swings, irritability, and depression.

And let’s not forget anxiety — the first cousin of chronic pain. When you’re in chronic pain, your mind becomes a playground for all kinds of “what if” scenarios.

“What if the pain increases?”

“What if the medication stops working?”

“What if I can’t go to work tomorrow?”

This constant worrying adds an additional layer of stress and exacerbates the pain you’re already feeling.

Perhaps one of the most understated impacts of chronic pain is social isolation. Pain can make even the simplest social activities feel like a marathon. Soon, you find yourself saying “no” more often than you say “yes” to social invitations. You start to pull away because, let’s face it, it’s easier to decline than to explain why you can’t sit through a two-hour movie without squirming. This isolation often spirals into feelings of loneliness and inadequacy, which can be breeding grounds for suicidal thoughts.

Why Traditional Pain Management Is Not Enough

In our pursuit to understand and treat chronic pain, we’ve often leaned heavily on traditional pain management techniques. While these methods have relieved many, they’re far from a panacea. There’s a growing realization that the conventional ways of addressing pain may not suffice in today’s complex medical landscape. Here’s why:

  • Narrow focus: Traditional pain management often zeroes in on the physical symptoms. It may neglect the emotional, psychological, and social components of pain, which are equally vital. Chronic pain doesn’t just affect the body; it impacts the mind and spirit, altering mood, self-worth, and interpersonal relationships.
  • Over-reliance on medications: The pharmaceutical route has long been a primary method to treat pain. However, this approach can lead to problems like medication dependence, side effects, or even the danger of overdose, particularly with opioids.
  • Temporary solutions: Traditional techniques often offer short-term relief. Patients may find themselves in a perpetual cycle of pain, relief, and pain again, without ever addressing the root causes or exploring long-term solutions.
  • Not holistic: Modern understanding of health and well-being emphasizes a holistic approach, taking into account not just the physical but also the emotional, environmental, and social factors. Traditional pain management often lacks this comprehensive perspective.
  • Limitations of one-size-fits-all: Everyone’s pain is unique in cause and experience. However, traditional methods can sometimes offer blanket solutions not tailored to individual needs.
  • Not evolving with new research: The medical field is ever-evolving, with new research, innovations, and discoveries surfacing regularly. Relying solely on traditional methods can mean missing out on the benefits of these advancements.
  • Lack of patient empowerment: Traditional approaches sometimes make patients feel like passive care recipients rather than active participants in their healing journey. Modern pain management strategies often emphasize patient education, self-management techniques, and empowerment.

In light of these limitations, it becomes evident that we must look beyond traditional methods. We need to integrate innovative treatments, holistic approaches, and personalized care plans to truly make a difference in those living with chronic pain. The goal isn’t just relief but recovery, not just treatment but transformation.

A Holistic Approach to Pain and Suicide Prevention

Addressing the profound connection between chronic pain and suicidal thoughts or actions, it becomes evident that effective pain management is pivotal in suicide prevention. Here’s how various interventions and treatments can act as shields against the mental toll of chronic pain:

Medical Interventions for Chronic Pain

  1. Pharmacotherapy: By effectively managing pain through prescribed medications, the emotional weight of unrelenting discomfort can be significantly lightened. Consult a health care provider and follow up regularly to prevent dependency or other side effects.
  2. Physical therapy: Improving mobility and decreasing pain restores physical function and rejuvenates one’s sense of autonomy and self-worth. This restoration can act as a buffer against feelings of hopelessness often associated with chronic pain.
  3. Injections or blocks: By offering temporary relief, these can provide a much-needed respite, making life more bearable and reducing feelings of desperation that may lead to suicidal ideation.

Alternative Treatments

  1. Acupuncture: Beyond the physical relief, traditional treatments like acupuncture can instill a sense of harmony and balance, mitigating feelings of despair.
  2. Mindfulness and meditation: Mindfulness techniques can teach you to process pain differently and lessen its emotional grip, allowing more hopeful perspectives.
  3. Diet and nutrition: Ever notice how some foods make you feel? Adjusting what you eat can be like giving your body a comforting, warm hug.

Emotional and Psychological Support

  1. Counseling or psychotherapy: Discussing the unique challenges of living with chronic pain with a therapist can provide coping tools, helping to reduce feelings of isolation and providing strategies to manage pain’s emotional toll.
  2. Support groups: Knowing you’re not alone in this experience can be immensely comforting. Shared experiences can lead to shared solutions, fostering hope and community.
  3. Crisis helplines: For the moments when it feels like too much, there are people ready to listen to help. It’s OK to lean on them.

When integrated thoughtfully, these treatments can form a protective web against the devastating emotional consequences of chronic pain. By directly addressing and alleviating physical discomfort, we indirectly combat the feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and despair that can drive people toward considering suicide.

Chronic Pain Red Flags for Mental Health

If you or someone you love is dealing with chronic pain, it’s vital to recognize that you’re not just managing physical symptoms but also navigating a challenging emotional landscape that could escalate into a life-threatening situation if not adequately addressed. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Emotional shifts: Notice someone seeming sadder than before? That’s a sign. Please don’t ignore it.
  • Pulling away: If they’re avoiding family, friends, or favorite activities, it’s a warning. Loneliness and pain are a tricky combo.
  • Sleepless nights: Chronic pain can steal sleep. If they’re always tired, it’s because the pain’s winning.
  • Sounding different: Hear them say, “I can’t go on”? That’s a cry for help. Please take it to heart.
  • Risky behavior: Acting recklessly or turning to substances? It’s more than just a phase. It’s a sign of deep unhappiness.
  • Thinking about the end: Talking about death or hints of it? It’s a big red flag. Don’t wait. Act now.
  • Giving things away: If they start giving away stuff, it’s serious. It’s hard to think about, but you can’t look away.
  • Pain that gets worse: If their pain intensifies, so can despair. Help them seek treatment, both for body and mind.
  • A past history: Stay alert if they’ve tried to end their life. They’re at a higher risk.
  • No way to get help: Can’t get medical help? Sometimes the system’s broken, but you can be their bridge to hope.

Remember, when you see these signs in someone, your attention and care can make all the difference. They might not say it, but they need you now more than ever.

How to Support Someone Living With Chronic Pain And Suicidality

If your loved one lives with chronic pain, the emotional burden can feel overwhelming. Your support can make a world of difference. Here’s how you can help them:

1. Just Be There: Sometimes, the most powerful thing you can do is sit beside them. Your presence alone speaks volumes. You don’t always have to find the right words. Your silent understanding can mean the world.

2. Actively Listen: Let them share their story, pain, and fears. Avoid interrupting or offering solutions unless they ask. A listening ear can be incredibly therapeutic.

3. Educate Yourself: The more you understand about chronic pain and its emotional impact, the better equipped you’ll be to offer meaningful support.

4. Encourage Professional Help: Gently suggest seeking medical help for the pain and psychological support for the emotional toll. If they’re hesitant, offer to help find resources or accompany them to appointments.

5. Respect Their Boundaries: There will be good and bad days. Be understanding when they need space or can’t participate in certain activities.

6. Be the Distraction: Plan a movie night, share a new song, or chat about anything other than pain. These small moments can offer a mental escape.

7. Help With Daily Tasks: Simple chores can be daunting when in pain. Offering help with groceries, cooking, or other household tasks can alleviate some of their burdens.

8. Validate Their Feelings: Never dismiss or minimize their pain. Recognize their experience without judgment. Let them know their feelings are valid.

9. Look Out for Warning Signs: Be vigilant for signs of deepening depression or suicidal thoughts. If they talk about feeling hopeless, withdraw from loved ones, or mention self-harm, take it seriously and seek help immediately.

10. Advocate for Them: Navigating the health care system or seeking resources can be daunting, especially when weighed down by pain. Stand up for them, speak on their behalf when they can’t, and help find the care they deserve. Your voice can amplify theirs, pushing through the noise to find the support they need.

11. Take Care of Yourself: Supporting someone in pain can be emotionally draining. Seek support for yourself through therapy, support groups, or conversations with friends.

All anyone needs is to know they are not alone.

Chronic pain isn’t just a physical weight; it’s an emotional storm that countless souls endure daily. By focusing on treating this pain, we’re not just easing aches — we’re holding out a hand, saying, “I see you, I hear you, and you’re not alone.” Because beneath every pain is a story that deserves a chance for a brighter chapter.

Getty image by Angel NT

Originally published: September 27, 2023
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home