The link between trauma and negative health outcomes among adults, including chronic physical and mental illness, is well-established. What is less known are studies like this one by Harvard Health, and other research, suggesting there is a link between trauma and chronic pain. Modern pain professionals understand that pain is a function of the brain and our processing of many inputs: our pain receptors, our environment, our culture and beliefs about pain, and our past experiences. So naturally, symptoms of trauma will have an impact on our physical well-being and how we process pain. While it is easy for one to make this connection by looking at the co-occurrence of these trauma and pain, it is not always the easiest connection to make when you’re the one suffering.
Trauma and Chronic Pain
As touched on in our discussion about “Big T” and “Little T” trauma, the lasting effects of significant trauma that triggers intense and damaging physiological responses can become clear decades later. While some trauma survivors may identify the single moment that led to their issues, others may be unaware that seemingly insignificant occurrences have actually left permanent scars.
This is particularly true for people whose chronic pain surfaces years after the person thinks they’ve “moved on” from adverse childhood experiences. Considering that the pain often manifests itself in the back, neck, and/or shoulders — areas that can be just as easily affected by stress, posture, or just the grind of daily life — people are likely to blame that pain and discomfort on a number of other factors rather than connecting their symptoms to the trauma.
PTSD and Avoidance
Aside from the devastating physiological impact of traumatic experiences, people who have been involved in an accident or have been injured as a result of abuse may push dealing these issues to their peripheral — or ignore them altogether — in order to not have to suffer the psychological consequences of addressing trauma. As we know, one of the three symptom clusters of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is avoidance and when someone has trauma around an injury, avoiding certain movements or behaviors to avoid re-experiencing the trauma is an expected outcome.
However, this results in restricting movements and a host of chronic pain issues, including reduced circulation, muscle atrophy, joint issues, and “smudging the brain map” – or confusing the brain about where the pain is actually experienced. And because pain is actually a function of brain, believing you are experiencing pain means you are experiencing pain, and it can consume you.
“Pain can take over different areas of the brain when it becomes chronic. It can take over our cognitive centers, it will fire the movement areas so it will make us rigid and freeze. Pain occupies a lot of our resources,” says Dr. Michael Aquino, PT, DPT. He adds, “This is why a lot of patients will tell me that they’re fatigued and unable to think about other things”.
In addition to these types of traumatic events, people who undergo surgery for health issues are subjected to another type of trauma: medical trauma. As the National Child Traumatic Stress Network says, medical trauma, like any adverse life event, is a result of one’s subjective experience rather than the actual severity of the medical event. So identifying trauma in these cases it isn’t as easy as looking at their medical history, as a person’s experience undergoing a simple procedure like having their appendix removed could be traumatic for one person and not another.
The symptoms of a medical trauma are the same as that of childhood abuse or combat – avoidance, fear, anxiety, withdraw – so someone suffering from this type of trauma may avoid seeking medical attention even if they know they are experiencing pain or injury.
Trauma-Informed Chronic Pain Care
Understanding how trauma can contribute to chronic pain is the first step in healing from it and finding recovery from chronic pain. Rather than potentially slipping into a pattern of substance misuse and abuse by turning to medication as a means to reduce the discomfort, identifying and treating the cause — rather than the symptoms — can lead to a significantly better long-term outcome.
Programs like Roots Chronic Pain Recovery understand that the key to a better quality of life is to remove the fear around pain and movement, and address these underlying issues by reframing our pain experience. Using modalities like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a holistic chronic pain recovery program like Roots help people shift their beliefs and understanding of pain, and take back control of their body.
For those who are already suffering from chronic pain — and possibly also using medications and other substances to treat it — turning away from what has worked in the past in favor of an entirely different method of therapy can be a scary proposition. Wrap that in with years or decades of misdiagnoses and mistreatment, and it can seem like an impossible mountain to climb at this point, which is exactly why facilities like Roots Chronic Pain Recovery are changing the way we talk about chronic pain.
With personalized and meaningful therapy, increased movement and exercise, and integrated care, even the most severe trauma and chronic pain can be worked through with time. By identifying and addressing the roots causes of pain and overcoming the co-occurring mental health and substance use issues, Roots Chronic Pain Recovery helps with every step of the journey. Whether it’s stress-related, a work place injury, or stemming from an earlier trauma, getting help for your chronic pain can not only improve your quality of life, but save it in the long run.
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