Social Support Key to Recovery from Suicidal Thoughts

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get an email or a comment left on this website about suicide.

Recently a young military veteran named “Joe” reached out. Joe is depressed and unable to work because he has chronic back and leg pain

“The thing is, I’m just about to turn 28 and can’t fathom how I’m supposed to go on like this for another year or two let alone trying to live my life for the next 60-70 years,” Joe wrote. “I’m not going to do anything yet but I have been seriously looking into euthanasia. I haven’t been able to have a real conversation with anybody about it, not even one of my 5 therapists or my wife, because I already know their reactions.”

Joe said he felt very rational about his decision but was anxious to talk about it “without being thrown into a straightjacket.”

Joe’s instinctive urge to talk with someone could be the key to working through this difficult time in his life, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Toronto. They analyzed a survey of 635 Canadians with chronic pain who had seriously thought about suicide to find out what qualities made those thoughts go away. Suicide “ideation” disappeared in about two-thirds of them.

Having a social support network – someone to talk to – was the key.

“The biggest factor in recovery from suicidal thoughts was having a confidant, defined as having at least one close relationship that provide the person in chronic pain a sense of emotional security and well-being,” said lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, PhD, a Professor of Social Work, Medicine and Nursing and Director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging.

“Even when a wide range of other characteristics such as age, gender and mental health history were taken into account, those with a confidant had 87 percent higher odds of being in remission from suicidal thoughts compared to those with no close relationships."

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People with pain who stopped having suicidal thoughts were also significantly more likely to be older, female, white, better educated, and more likely to use prayer and spirituality to cope with daily problems.

Living in poverty and struggling to pay basic living expenses were barriers to recovery from suicide ideation. Poverty can severely limit access to healthcare, transportation and social activity.

"Clearly we need targeted efforts to decrease social isolation and loneliness among those experiencing chronic pain. These participants reported that pain prevented some or most of their activities, so they were particularly vulnerable to social isolation,” said Fuller-Thomson. “More awareness by the general public that mobility limitations associated with chronic pain can make it difficult for individuals to socialize outside the household, could encourage friends and family to visit and phone more and thereby decrease loneliness."

PNN’s recent survey of over 6,000 patients and healthcare providers shows how pervasive suicide is in the pain community. Nearly half the patients said they have considered suicide, while nearly one in four practitioners said they have lost a patient to suicide.

The good news is that public health agencies are finally starting to pay attention to these issues. Last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication because of the risk of suicide.

“(FDA) has received reports of serious harm in patients who are physically dependent on opioid pain medicines suddenly having these medicines discontinued or the dose rapidly decreased. These include serious withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress, and suicide,” the agency said.

If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, support is just a phone call away. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline has trained counselors on duty 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK.

Do You Know How To Say No?

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

Such a tiny word. Such a powerful one. For toddlers and teenagers, saying “No” comes easily. Then something changes. Some of us as adults would rather stick pins in our eyes than say no to anyone. That’s a problem. An even bigger problem if you suffer from chronic pain

You likely know the drill. Your body is screaming in flared pain -- red flags for rest and self-care. But you don’t say no to your neighbour who needs help with a chore. You don’t say no to babysitting your nieces at the last minute. You don’t say no to that extra job your boss asks you to stay late for. 

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The inability to say no is directly linked to our need for approval from others. Why do we crave their positive opinion? There are many reasons, but for our purposes let’s just talk about chronic pain patients and some of the reasons we can’t say no.

The consequences of unrelieved pain can include but are not limited to:  depression, anxiety, impaired function, financial distress, sleep and appetite disturbances, identity erosion, social isolation, relationship conflict, demoralization, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. They can all disconnect you from your family, friends, work and social life.

In a herculean attempt not to relinquish “who we were” before the pain, we don’t say no. Our hearts scream out: “I’m still a son/daughter! I’m still a partner! I’m still a parent! I’m still a good friend! I’m still a valued employee!”  We instinctively try to stay in the group in order to survive. We must be accepted and approved at all costs!

What are the personal costs of not saying no?

Anxiety

We only have so much time and energy, and yours is steadily eroded by other people’s demands. You may begin to experience anxiety attacks. Constant worrying and catastrophizing can lead to heart palpitations, sweating, headaches and other physical manifestations.

Depression

Constantly giving in to the demands of others and consistently falling behind in your own life can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, a major contributor to depression. If you spend your time catering to others without focusing on your owns needs, you can lose track of what you want and who you really are. This loss of identity feeds into anxiety and depression.

Relationship Breakdown

In the beginning, saying yes all the time may be appealing to you and to others. But as time goes by hidden resentments may surface or you may feel manipulated.

If you cannot say no, you’re not being honest about your feelings for fear of hurting someone else’s. You may not even be honest about how much pain you are in.

Honesty is a cornerstone of healthy relationships. Saying yes when you truly want to say no isn’t being honest – to yourself or anyone else.

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Stress

Too much stress isn’t healthy and can be devastating to pained bodies. It’s exhausting trying to please everyone all of the time. Exhausted bodies are stressed bodies. You’re more likely to experience low grade colds or illness, have trouble sleeping, and feel more pain.

The inability to say no is problematic to your mental and physical well-being. It serves no one – not you or others – to be consistently saying yes when your body says no. You are not being true to yourself or to them.

Others cannot see your pain or understand what your needs are, so they are not given a chance to respect them. It’s really a lose-lose situation.

How does a pain sufferer get themselves out of this unrelenting pattern? Here are four tips I’ve learned:

1. Make Your Pain Visible

If you were in a wheelchair, your disability and limitations would be obvious. But when your pain is invisible, others may need to be educated. It’s time to fess up about what you are capable of and what you are not. Your health demands it.

You’ve likely heard this before: If you don’t take care of yourself first, you will never be able to take care of others. Think of the flight attendant teaching us how to use our oxygen masks in case of emergency. You always put your own mask on first to get the oxygen you’ll need to help others. It’s just like that with pain. When your body says no, it becomes you first.

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Some people feel shame in telling others that they suffer from chronic pain. They feel broken or weak and don’t want others to know. This is an erroneous self-belief. It creates an invisible boundary between yourself and the rest of the world.

You = bad, broken. Everyone else = good, whole.

This is emphatically untrue. You are not different from the rest of the world. Everyone suffers in some way, shape or form. It may not be from physical pain, but it will be from something else.

It may not be the easiest conversation you ever have, but it’s one of the most important ones.  Some folks provide educational material about their pain condition to help explain how debilitating it can be. You might be pleasantly surprised when you give people a chance to understand. They may embrace you with compassion, respect your limitations and treat you accordingly – just as you would for a loved one.

If you don’t say no and make your pain visible, they’ll never see the authentic you. They only see a façade: You wearing a “yes” mask. Is that fair to either of you? 

2. Create Boundaries  

When you’re learning how to say no, it’s easy to get caught off guard so be prepared. Sometimes well-meaning loved ones will try to coax or guilt you into doing something you really don’t want to do. Have a narrative ready. It could be something like, “I know I look fine, but my joints are hurting so much it’s getting hard to move. I’m just exhausted and I need your support right now.”

Or perhaps something like: “Sorry, I cannot help with that because I’m in a pain flare today and need to take care of myself. I’d really like to help when I am able to, so next time around, ask me again.”

Boundaries for support from other people need to be firm. If not, you risk no one taking you or your pain seriously.

3. Simplify Your Social Life, But Don’t Abandon It  

What about social occasions? How do you handle an impromptu invitation from a friend when your body is telling you to stay put? Living as well as possible with chronic pain is all about constant adaptations.

Perhaps there is something you could attend if someone else did all of the driving?

Maybe you can go to a potluck dinner, but your contribution is store-bought?

Loved ones want to get together for a meal? Dining out is a terrific choice because there’s no cooking or clean up involved.

Can’t keep up with your friends at the gym? Let them run on their treadmills or go to cardio class while you walk around the track. You can all meet up later for a stretch and a green tea.

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Family wants to go bowling, which is something you’re not physically capable of? No need to miss out. Let them bowl as you sit and chat with them as they take their turns. You might be pleasantly surprised your inner circle is just happy to have you there and that they’ve come to understand your limits

4. Yes, But…

How do you RSVP to an invitation when you have no idea how you will feel at that time?

How about this: “Thanks, I would love to come but there is a chance that it may be a flared pain day for me. Can I confirm with you the day of, if that’s okay?” This is a regular of mine.

It may turn out to be a low pain day, in which case I’m attending.  If it’s a medium pain day, I’ll put my psychotherapy tools to work and go. If it’s a very high pain day, I am staying home.  

Framing it this way makes it much easier for me to bow out at the last minute. I do this both socially and with work-related meetings. If I’m not able to make it, we re-book so they know I really do want to attend, I just need to be well enough to do it.

There are some very special and rare occasions where I will say yes even if my body says no, such as a wedding or special birthday event. In that case, I will not book myself for anything or anyone for a couple of days after so that I can fully recover.

Say no when necessary. Simplify and adapt to your needs when necessary. You first. It’s not selfish, it’s self-compassion. Chronic pain patients could all use more of that. Seek help if you need some.  Most therapists are well-versed in self-compassion.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for over 30 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

10 Ways to Avoid Depression Over the Holidays

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

Do you celebrate the holidays or do you secretly dread them? For some of us, the period between Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day can be the most depressing time of the year.

The first reason is that we are exposed to less sunlight during the winter. We need light to maintain our physical, mental and emotional health. There are also societal pressures that can weigh heavily on pain patients, such as not being able to participate in holiday activities. The holidays can make us depressed, financially strained, anxiety ridden, and harder to be around.

Here are some early warning signs of depression:

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions

  • Fatigue and decreased energy

  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness and/or helplessness

  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping

  • Irritability, restlessness

  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex

  • Overeating or appetite loss

  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems

  • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" feelings

  • Thoughts of suicide or a suicide attempt

Take this seriously, as depression carries a high risk of suicide. Anybody who expresses suicidal thoughts or intentions should be taken very seriously. Do not hesitate to call your local suicide hotline immediately.

Depression can cause you to isolate yourself from others, decreasing your mobility and increasing drug dependence. A cycle begins where depression causes and intensifies the pain and stress on your body.

It can be hard to face the emotional aspects of pain, but it is important to look at the signs and be aware of them. Remember, pain causes depression, not the other way around! 

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Depression can keep you from taking care of yourself. You cannot afford to let yourself fall into dark dreary moods. Be sure, no matter how you are feeling, that you are following the goals set for your care, such as taking the correct dose of medication at the correct time of each day.

It may take a little effort to keep healthy habits when you are depressed. Here are 10 tips fellow pain patients, friends with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and I have used over the years.  

  1. Use artificial light sources. The body’s internal biological clock can get really out of sync during the winter season. Bright light therapy becomes an important tool.

  2. Try something new, such as a craft or hobby.

  3. Progressive muscle relaxation, hypnosis and meditation can reduce stress and pain levels

  4. Stop doing things you don’t enjoy and do things you like, such as listening to music or aroma therapy.

  5. Physical therapy and exercise can break the cycle of pain and help relieve depression

  6. Make a list of life’s blessings, reminding yourself what you have accomplished in life. Even if you can’t do it now, you could once and no one can take that from you.

  7. Cognitive and behavioral therapies teach pain patients how to avoid negative and discouraging thoughts.

  8. Change everyday routines to ward off physical and emotional suffering

  9. Clean out or organize an area of the house. It could be as simple as clearing a bedside table or filing your medical records. Getting organized in one area of your life can help you manage other areas more successfully.

  10. Seek professional help if you start feeling overwhelmed. Dealing with chronic pain can slow recovery from depression. Specialists should treat both problems together.  

Getting your depression under control will help you focus on managing your health. As you learn to let go of anxiety and stress, it will help lower pain levels and make the holidays more enjoyable.  

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics. More information about Barby can be found at her website.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Social Media Lowers Depression Risk for Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Seniors citizens who have chronic pain are significantly less likely to suffer from depression if they participate in an online social network, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Michigan reviewed the results of a 2011 survey of more than 3,400 Medicare patients aged 65 and older, in which respondents were asked about their depression, pain and social participation. About 17% of the seniors used an online social network in the previous month.

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Researchers found that seniors who had chronic pain were often depressed, socially isolated and less likely to participate in activities that require face-to-face interaction.

However, online social participation appeared to buffer the impact of pain on depression. Seniors in pain who did not use an online social network were twice as likely to become depressed.

“The results suggest that for those in pain, it may be possible that online social participation can compensate for reduced offline social participation, especially where it pertains to the maintenance of mental health and well-being. This is critical because the onset of pain can often lead to a ‘downward spiral’ of social isolation and depression, resulting in adverse outcomes for the health of older adults,” wrote lead author Shannon Ang, a doctoral candidate at the U-M Department of Sociology and Institute for Social Research.

“Online social participation serves as a way to possibly arrest the development of pain toward depression through this pathway, by ensuring that older adults remain socially connected despite the presence of pain.”

Social media may also preserve cognitive function and psychological well-being in the elderly, researchers said. The findings are significant in an aging society where social isolation and loneliness are key determinants of well-being.

"Our results may be possibly extended to other forms of conditions (e.g., chronic illnesses, functional limitations) that, like pain, also restrict physical activity outside of the home," Ang said.

The survey data did not identify what types of social media – such as Facebook or Twitter – were more effective in warding off depression and social isolation.

The study was published in the Journals of Gerontology.

Fibromyalgia and the High Risk of Suicide

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Studies have shown that fibromyalgia patients are 10 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and about three times more likely than other chronic pain patients.

What can be done to reduce that alarmingly high risk?

One possible solution is for fibromyalgia patients to visit a doctor more often, according to a new study published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center analyzed health data for nearly 8,900 fibromyalgia patients, finding 34 known suicide attempts and 96 documented cases of suicidal thoughts – also known as suicide ideation. Then they looked at how often the patients saw a doctor.

On average, patients who had suicidal thoughts spent 1.7 hours seeing a doctor per year, while those who did not have suicide ideation visited a doctor an average of 5.9 hours per year.

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The difference was even more substantial for those who tried to commit suicide. Fibromyalgia patients who attempted suicide saw a doctor for less than an hour a year, compared to over 50 hours per year for those who did not try to kill themselves.

“Fifty hours versus one hour – that’s a staggering difference,” said lead author Lindsey McKernan, PhD, a professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “They might have been at one appointment in a year and this disorder, fibromyalgia, takes a lot to manage. It takes a lot of engagement.”

Fibromyalgia is characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression, insomnia and mood swings. Because fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose and treat, there is a fair amount of stigma associated with it and patients often feel like they are not believed or taken seriously by their family, friends and doctors.

Self-isolation could be one reason fibromyalgia patients don’t visit a physician as often as they should.

“If you really break it down the people who were having suicidal thoughts weren’t going into the doctor as much. I think about the people who might be falling through the cracks. Chronic pain in and of itself is very isolating over time,” said McKernan.

“Perhaps we can connect those individuals to an outpatient provider, or providers, to improve their care and reduce their suicide risk. We also might see patients at-risk establish meaningful relationships with providers whom they can contact in times of crisis,” said senior author Colin Walsh, MD, a professor of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt.

In addition to seeing a primary care provider or rheumatologist, researchers say fibromyalgia patients should be getting regular exercise and physical therapy, and working with a psychologist or mental health provider.

“We looked at thousands of people in this study and not one who received mental health services of some kind went on to attempt suicide,” McKernan said.

“Often, when you are hurting, your body tells you to stay in bed. Moving is the last thing that you want to do. And when you are tired, when your mood is low, when your body aches, you don’t want to see anybody, but that is exactly what you need to do — contact your doctors, stay in touch with them, and move. It really can make a difference.”

The Abyss of Chronic Pain

By David Hanscom, MD, PNN Columnist

One afternoon, I was listening to a pain patient attempt to describe the depth of her suffering, and it hit me how dark and deep this hole of chronic pain can be.

I had a flashback to my own experience with pain. Not only did I not know how I ended up in that level of misery, I had no hope and wasn’t being given any answers. I kept descending deeper and deeper into darkness.

Words couldn’t come close to describing my physical and mental suffering, but the image that came to mind was a deep dark abyss. I will never forget what it was like to be there and trapped in the abyss for over 15 years.

One night, I was driving across a bridge when suddenly my heart began to pound.  I couldn’t breathe, began sweating and became light-headed. I thought I was going to die. It was the first of many panic attacks. And it became much worse. I sank into a deep depression.

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I honestly had no clue at the time that my anxiety and other symptoms were all linked together by sustained levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, cortisol and histamines.

I couldn’t sleep because of endless racing thoughts. My ears were ringing and my feet constantly burned. I began to get migraine headaches weekly. My scalp itched, and skin rashes would pop up all over my body and then disappear. I experienced intermittent crushing chest pain.

As unpleasant as these physical symptoms were, it wasn’t the worst part of the story.

I began a relentless search for answers. What was happening to me? My life went from being a hard-working young physician with a bright future to just trying to survive. As a spine surgeon in a large city, I had access to the best medical care and underwent all sorts of imaging and blood testing. No one could tell me what was going on. I became increasingly frustrated and moody.

After seven years of this, I lost my marriage. No marriage could have survived the obsessive energy I was using to try and escape from the abyss.

My anxiety progressed to a full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is characterized by repetitive and vivid intrusive thoughts. It was brutal. I had always thought that OCD was a joke, but it may be the worst mentally painful experience in human existence. I looked up the treatment and prognosis for it, and it was dismal.

My mind began to play tricks on me. I become an “epiphany addict.” I was sure I could find an answer if I looked hard enough. I read book after book, saw doctors, tried different medications, practiced meditation, and discussed my situation with anyone who would listen. That number grew smaller, as people got tired of listening to me and I became increasingly socially isolated.  

Every aspect of this experience was miserable but the loneliness I felt was the worst. Being alone, I had more time to think about my misery and became fearful that people didn’t want to be around me. I hadn’t realized how terrible being lonely could be.

I wanted to quit being a doctor, but my instincts told me to hang on. I still enjoyed performing complex spine surgery and running my practice. I liked my staff, colleagues and patients. In retrospect, that may have been the one thing that provided the structure to keep me going. My personal life had disintegrated.

As I write this column, I still feel woefully inadequate to find the words to characterize the intensity of my suffering. I was in this hole for over 15 years and crossed the line to end it all.

Learning How to Feel Good Again

Then in 2003, I picked up a book by Dr. David Burns, called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.” It’s about self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy.  Burns was adamant from the beginning of the book that the key to recovery was to start writing. His format is a three-column technique where you write down your disruptive thoughts, categorize them into one of 10 “cognitive distortions,” and then write down more rational thoughts.

I began to write for hours and for the first time in 15 years felt a shift in my mood and thinking. Burns is right, the act of writing is important. There are now over 1,000 research papers documenting the effectiveness of this approach.  

Six months after I began this therapy, I connected (badly) with my deep-seated anger and was completely miserable for about 2 weeks. But as I emerged from this fog, I began to feel better. All of my physical symptoms eventually disappeared, including my headaches, burning in my feet, anxiety, and tinnitus.

It all goes back to the stress hormones. When you are trapped by anything, especially pain, your body is exposed to sustained levels of stress chemicals and each organ will react in its own specific way. Today, my symptoms remain at minimal levels unless they are triggered, and I have learned how to quickly return to feeling good.

There are many additional layers to the healing journey that are presented on my website. Each person will relate to the concepts in a different way, but the outcomes have been consistently good. There is a recent research paper that shows simply learning about the neuroscience of chronic pain can significantly reduce it.

I got incredibly lucky and feel fortunate to be able to pass along these healing concepts to my patients. It has been an unexpected and rewarding phase of my career.

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Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

6 Emotional Stages of Chronic Pain

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

Emotions are part of our life experience and influence how we cope with challenging situations such as chronic pain.

Emotional responses to pain are not “bad” or “negative” because they are a natural response to life events. For example, depression is often seen as a sign of poor health, but it can also be a way of conserving bodily energy.

Emotions are never a sign of weakness. Emotions are adaptive responses which have helped us survive as a species.

Did you know there are normal emotional stages of injury and pain? Not everyone goes through every stage and it is not a linear process. Sometimes we bounce from stage to stage in no particular order.

Let’s look at these 6 emotional stages of chronic pain:

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Denial

Denial is when we refuse to acknowledge how we feel and try to conceal the problem. When we’re in this stage our thoughts are likely: “It’s probably nothing serious” or “It will pass soon enough.”

Typical denial behaviour would be to ignore the pain, keep going as though you’re not in pain, failure to seek medical attention, and not following medical advice. Basically, you’re acting like nothing is going on in your body.

Denial is also culturally reinforced by beliefs that we should “suck it up, don’t complain and keep working.”

Fear and Anxiety

We feel fear and anxiety when the reality of something wrong hits home. You will likely be thinking quite repetitively during this stage. Typical thoughts would be: “Something is very wrong” or “What’s going to happen to me?” 

In this stage, your behaviour might be to rest and withdraw or avoid activities to protect yourself from further injury or pain. You will find yourself preoccupied with a lot of worry. You will likely begin to scan your environment and your body for threats to either, and it will be hard to commit to work or play.

Depression

Depression is the most common response to chronic pain and tends to come after fear and anxiety. Your thoughts would be normal in this stage if they were: “What’s the use?” or “Why bother with anything anymore?”

Realize none of this is enjoyable or desired; it is a normal response to chronic pain. Your behaviour would be to reduce participation in normal physical activities – even the enjoyable ones.  Social withdrawal would continue as a protective adaptation and you might experience problems with sleep.

Depression can impair your sense of self and you may grieve the loss of your identity. If you’re not an employee and parent anymore, then who are you? It is normal to withdraw in depression when your world shrinks in size.

Anger

Another emotional stage, and one I am quite familiar with, is anger. This defensive behaviour is the “fight” in the fight-flight-freeze response. It energizes you to resist the problems that come with chronic pain, and to ward off danger and restore safety. Normal angry thoughts about your pain would be: “It’s not fair” or “Why me?”

Behaviours in this stage can sometimes be troublesome, as they may become impulsive (acting or speaking quickly without thinking it through) or compulsive (repetitive behaviour not serving a purpose). You may overreact to smaller things and blow up at others. You might also engage in risky behaviour such as abusing alcohol or other substances to try to numb yourself.

The key is to express your anger in a healthy manner and hopefully transform it into affirmative action.  This is where you find the message in your anger and put it to work for you. I put my anger to work for me as I advocate for chronic pain patients on a regular basis.

Shame

Shame is not to be confused with guilt. Guilt says, “I’ve done something bad” while shame says, “I am bad.” Shame comes from how we see ourselves as damaged goods and can lead to feelings of self-loathing and disgust. You might think: “I’m worthless” or “I’m a complete failure.”

As a therapist, I find this to be a particularly powerful and difficult stage for clients, as shame often takes up all the space in the room. Behaviours in this stage would be continued social withdrawal, a decrease in assertiveness and self-confidence, and possibly self-destructive behaviours such as abusing alcohol or drugs.

Acceptance

The final emotional stage of coping with chronic pain is acceptance. Some patients reach this stage fairly quickly and others never reach it.

Let me be crystal clear about acceptance: It does not mean that you want this pain or that you like this pain and gladly accept it. Absolutely not. What it does mean is that you accept yourself without judgment, you live in the present moment, and you accept what is. Your thoughts will be along these lines: “This is not my fault” or “I can and will cope with this.”

Behaviours begin to change in this stage. You will be less focused on the past and have more realistic expectations of yourself. You will maintain appropriate levels of physical activity, use medications appropriately, reduce your emotional stress, and begin to experience feelings of peace rather than constantly beating yourself up.

Acceptance does not mean that you no longer feel any of the other emotions.  You may still experience feelings of denial, fear and anxiety, depression, anger and shame, but they will be less often and with less intensity.

Acceptance -- which includes hefty doses of self-compassion -- does not cure anyone’s physical pain, but it does facilitate better coping and reduced emotional stress. You do not accept pain because you want it or like it, but because it is here, you have it, and you respond to it in a kinder, gentler way.

The purpose of acceptance is to engage in activities that you feel have value. Within this purpose, acceptance becomes relevant and necessary. As a consequence, there is often less time spent struggling against and trying to avoid pain -- time freed up to engage in more valued pursuits.

It may take some time and support to acquire this tool, but once you have, it’s yours for life. Double entendre fully intended.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

FDA Ends Probe into Kratom Salmonella Link

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Food and Drug Administration has ended its investigation of a small salmonella outbreak linked to kratom – but not without taking some parting shots at the herbal supplement used by millions of Americans to treat chronic pain, addiction, depression and other conditions.

“It appears the salmonella problem with kratom uncovered earlier this year has probably been occurring for some time and is ongoing. We have closed our outbreak investigation, concluding that anyone consuming kratom may be placing themselves at a significant risk of being exposed to salmonella,” said FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, and Stephen Ostroff, MD, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, in a lengthy joint statement.

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The FDA ended its investigation five weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrapped up its own probe of the salmonella outbreak that sickened 199 people in 41 states. The CDC investigation began in February of this year, but salmonella illnesses linked to kratom were traced back as far as January 2017.

No single source of the outbreak was ever identified, but kratom was considered the “likely source.” A little over half of the 81 kratom samples that were analyzed tested positive for strains of salmonella bacteria.

“This means that users of these products had essentially a one in two chance of being exposed to this pathogen,” Gottlieb and Ostroff said. “The more than 50 percent contamination rate is stunningly high. It represents a level rarely seen in outbreak investigations of this nature. It shows that a high proportion of kratom being shipped into the United States may be contaminated with salmonella.”

Kratom comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries as a natural pain reliever and stimulant, particularly in rural areas of Indonesia and Thailand.  

“In these locations, the plant is being grown, harvested and processed in problematic conditions that readily create the circumstance for widespread contamination with foodborne pathogens. Although some of the kratom is further processed once in the United States into capsules, powders or herbal remedies, based on our findings, these procedures do not appear to be eliminating microbial contamination,” wrote Gottlieb and Ostroff.

In recent years, millions of Americans have discovered kratom and started buying it online or in convenience stores and “head shops.” But not until this year did federal health officials show any concern that kratom products were contaminated with salmonella bacteria. Their primary focus was that kratom was being marketed as an unapproved medical treatment, particularly for pain and addiction.

The FDA has even started calling kratom an addictive “opioid,” when in reality its active ingredients are mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, two alkaloids that are believed to act on opioid receptors in the brain. Earlier this year, the FDA released a computer analysis that found kratom contains over two dozen opioid-like substances – a report that critics say was biased and amounted to “junk science.”

Over a dozen kratom products were recalled during the FDA and CDC salmonella investigations. Salmonella is a bacterial infection usually spread through contaminated food or water. Most people who become infected develop diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. Severe cases can result in death.

There have been several other salmonella outbreaks this year, including infections linked to melons, raw sprouts, dried and shredded coconut, live poultry, chicken salad, pet guinea pigs, and Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal.

Rats, Depression and Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

An unusual study involving rats, depression and chronic pain is making headlines – the latest in a long line of flawed research studies being used to debunk the effectiveness of opioid pain medication.

“NIH study suggests opioid therapy not effective against chronic pain,” is the headline in UPI.

“Pain-induced changes in the brain explain the limited effectiveness of opioid therapy,” is how the Tech Explorist put it.

At issue is a small study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and McGill University in Montreal on pain-induced changes in 17 laboratory rats. That's right, 17 rats. The study findings, published in the journal Pain, concluded that chronic pain reduced the number of opioid receptors – the molecules that opioids bind to -- in the rats’ brains. In theory at least, that would make the rats less responsive to opioid pain medication.

Note that the research did not include any people, the rats were not given any opioids, and the effectiveness of opioids wasn't even measured in the rats. But that didn’t stop the NIH from drawing some sweeping conclusions.

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“These results provide insights into why we see limited effectiveness of opioid therapy in chronic pain and the mechanism of the depression that may accompany it,” said David Shurtleff, PhD, acting director at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

“These basic research findings support NIH’s efforts to better understand chronic pain and comorbid symptoms and to develop better ways to help chronic pain patients effectively manage their pain.”

McGill University was more cautious, saying further studies were needed in humans to confirm the study findings.

“Although the study… was conducted in rats, and the results of animal studies may not be directly applicable to people, the findings provide new insights into how the brain may respond to pain and opioids,” a McGill press release states. “These findings, if confirmed in people, will enhance the understanding of the impact of chronic pain on the brain, its relation to depression, and the effects of opioids.”

Researchers have many theories about the origins and treatment of chronic pain, but conducting tests on humans to prove them is problematic. Laboratory animals are often used as an imperfect substitute.

In the NIH/McGill study, 17 rats had brain surgeries to produce a nerve injury that causes chronic pain, while another group of rats had sham surgeries (a similar procedure that did not cause chronic pain). Three months later, PET scan imaging showed opioid receptors had decreased in multiple regions of the brain in the nerve-injured rats, but no changes occurred in the sham-surgery rats.

These results suggest that pain itself, not treatment or pre-existing trauma, altered the brain’s opioid system. Other tests showed a weaker link between chronic pain and depression in the nerve-injured rats.

How did researchers determine the rats were depressed? 

When given a choice, healthy rats will normally drink water sweetened with sugar rather than plain water. But animals with a decreased ability to experience pleasure, a recognized symptom of depression, may not. The rats in the study with chronic pain showed a decreased preference for sugar water over plain water, while rats in the sham group still showed a preference for sweetened water. This, the researchers believe, was enough evidence to conclude the nerve-injured rates were depressed.

“It’s well known that there’s a link between chronic pain and depression,” explained co-author M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, scientific director of NCCIH’s Division of Intramural Research.  “The results of this study indicate that pain-induced changes in the brain’s opioid system may play a role in this association. Animals with the greatest decrease in opioid receptor availability showed the greatest increase in depression-like symptoms after experiencing chronic pain.”

While intriguing, the results of this rat study are far from definitive and do not prove that opioids are an ineffective treatment for chronic pain in people. What they do show is that we need more and better research about opioids and chronic pain, not more misleading headlines and statements from the NIH.

Childhood Trauma Linked to Adult Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you experienced physical or emotional trauma as a child – like a major illness, abuse or your parents’ divorce – you are more likely to experience pain as an adult, according to researchers at Penn State.

Their findings -- published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine – add to previous research suggesting there’s a link between adult physical pain and childhood trauma or adversity.

"Pain is the number one reason people seek health care in the United States," said co-author Jennifer Graham-Engeland, PhD, a professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State. “We need more insight into pain and the phenomenon that can make pain both better or worse."

The researchers surveyed a diverse group of 265 adults who lived in a housing cooperative in the Bronx, New York.  All reported at least one form of trauma or adversity as children or adolescents. Some reported as many as seven.

A traumatizing event that left a person scared for years was the most common adversity (44%), followed by parental divorce (31%), a major illness or accident requiring hospitalization (24%), parental substance abuse (24%), sexual abuse (23%), parental unemployment (21%), a child’s removal from the home (10%) and physical abuse (10%).

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Participants were also asked about their current mood, sleep patterns, optimism, how in control of their lives they felt, and if they recently felt pain.

Those who experienced more adversity or trauma as children were more likely to have mood or sleep problems as adults -- which in turn made them more likely to have physical pain. But the connection to pain was weaker in those who felt more optimistic and resilient.

"The participants who felt more optimistic or in control of their lives may have been better at waking up with pain but somehow managing not to let it ruin their day," said Ambika Mathur, a graduate student in biobehavioral health. "They may be feeling the same amount or intensity of pain, but they've taken control of and are optimistic about not letting the pain interfere with their day. They're still performing their work or daily activities while doing their best to ignore the pain."

The researchers found that childhood or adolescent adversity was strongly associated with more physical pain in adulthood, which could be partially explained by feelings of anger, depression or anxiety -- as well as poor sleep.

"Basically what's happening is mood and sleep disturbances are explaining the link between early life adversity and pain in adulthood," Mathur said. "The findings suggest that early life trauma is leading to adults having more problems with mood and sleep, which in turn lead to them feeling more pain and feeling like pain is interfering with their day."

The researchers also found that people who felt more optimistic or resilient didn't have as strong of a connection between trouble sleeping and pain interfering with their day. This suggests that childhood adversity can be overcome and doesn't necessarily sentence anyone to a lifetime of pain.

"This study does build on a body of research showing a connection between early life adversity and pain, but also that some people can achieve resilience," said Graham-Engeland. “Some people can be relatively resilient to adverse effects in the longer term, while others have a harder time."

Recent studies have also linked childhood trauma to adult migraine and fibromyalgia.

Major Depression Increasing

Pain sufferers aren't the only ones dealing with anxiety or depression. According to a new report from Blue Cross Blue Shield, major depression affects more than 9 million Americans who are commercially insured.

Diagnoses of major depression have risen by 33 percent since 2013. The rate is rising even faster in millennials (up 47%) and adolescents (47% for boys and 65% for girls).

In most cases, major depression coincides with a chronic or behavioral health condition. People diagnosed with depression are three times more likely to suffer from pain related disorders and injuries, and seven times more likely to have a substance use disorder.

It's worth noting that a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that medications used to treat depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders are now involved in more overdoses than opioid pain medication.

Over 25,000 overdoses in 2016 were linked to "psychotherapeutic" medications such as antidepressants, benzodiazepines, anti-psychotics, barbiturates and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) drugs such as Adderall. Deaths linked to psychotherapeutic drugs have risen by 45 percent since 2010.

Over 17,000 Americans died in 2016 from overdoses involving prescription opioids.