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Doctors Explain How Anxiety and Chronic Pain Are Linked

Here’s How Anxiety Could Be the Root of Your Chronic Pain

Shot of a young businesswoman suffering with back pain while working in an office

Fact: People with anxiety are more vulnerable to chronic pain, proof that mental and physical health are equally important.

Pain is always personal and subjective but, Dr. Griffin R. Baum, MD, a spine surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan admits, "Patients with anxiety typically report increased sensations of pain with more profound experiences of suffering and disability due to the pain."

In more clinical terms: "Anxiety arises from an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, which can lead to decreased pain tolerance and dysfunction in the central nervous system," Dr. Baum says.

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Dr. Alan Hilibrand, MD, the co-director of Spine Surgery and Director of the Spine Fellowship at Rothman Orthopaedic Institute in New Jersey, also notes that both anxiety and stress can induce inflammation within the body in general, resulting in increased feelings of discomfort.

So, what comes first: pain or anxiety?

There isn't a clear answer to this chicken-or-the-egg scenario.

Dr. Baum points out that back pain is more common amongst 30-to50-year-olds, while anxiety often presents itself earlier in life for many people.

To play devil's advocate, Dr. Hilibrand presents two possibilities: someone with minor back strain may feel amplified pain due to the inflammatory elements in their body. In contrast, a patient with preexisting chronic pain could experience flare-ups as a "stress-response" of their body.

If there is one thing both doctors do agree on, it's that manageing your anxiety can help to reduce chronic pain.

According to Dr. Baum, treatments for anxiety (such as meditation, talk therapy, and medications that neurotransmitter imbalance in the brain) have been proven to decrease objective ratings of back pain while enabling patients to become more active — which further aids discomfort.

Dr. Hilibrand concurs that exercise, recreational time with family and friends, and addressing the core source of the anxiety can reduce chronic pain.

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Image Source: Getty / katleho Seisa
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