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Chronic pain and mental health: What's the link?

Covid and mental health

After the two years we’ve had, it’s not surprising that people are suffering with low mood, decreased motivation, and increased anxiety levels. Two years of rules, isolation and not seeing loved ones has had a definite effect on people’s mental health. Therapists are seeing a record number of patients with associated levels of depression and anxiety, but recent studies have shown that the pandemic-related surge in mental health issues may remain untreated or undiagnosed due to the interrupted health services or backlog of care. This has led to many patients trying to manage their own mental health at home. 

Chronic pain and mood

From a clinical perspective, I’ve seen how the pandemic has affected pain tolerance in patients, especially those suffering with chronic pain. Many chronic pain sufferers rely on treatment to help increase their quality of life, and the first lockdown meant all private practice (physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractic, sports therapists, etc.) had to close for a period of 12 weeks. Patients were forced to deal with pain in different ways and this has inevitably influenced their mental health and vice versa.

Leaving chronic pain untreated can cause long term negative effects on mental health. It can lead to poor levels of sleep, decreased tolerance for pain, and decreased activity levels which in turn all lead to poor mood. All of these are risk factors for developing depression too since psychological pain is directly related to physical pain.

As therapists, it’s out of our scope of practice to say that we deal directly with the management of mental health; however, we can influence how a patient deals with their mental health by focusing on their physical pain. If a patient feels mentally in a state of wellbeing, they are more likely to get better treatment outcomes with their therapist since they're in a better state to take on board information that can lead to recovery.

Top tips for supporting your mood naturally

In this blog post, I’m going to share with you my top tips on how to deal with negative mood and how this can help influence your recovery!

Low impact exercise

We all know that exercise is recommended, not only as a modality for recovery but also as a management tool for mental health. It helps provide the body with a healthy outlet to manage stress and it even decreases the risk of cardiac disease. When we exercise, the body releases happy hormones known as endorphins, these help us feel good about ourselves and can boost mood. Now imagine you’re a chronic pain sufferer and you’ve been advised to exercise to help manage your pain but by doing so it also creates more pain. You can see how it can be difficult to manage low mood associated with chronic pain with exercise. If you suffer from chronic pain, looking at training alternatives such as a low impact activity (Swimming, Aqua Aerobics or Yoga) can be great. These activities still allow your body to release those feel-good hormones, they can help with mobility and reduce pain. It’s important to find an exercise that you enjoy - this way it won’t be a chore and you’ll be twice as likely to keep it consistent. Set yourself manageable targets, for example, 2-3 times a week for 20 minutes, and build on them. This will help to boost your mood and decrease stress surrounding your current injury.

Nutrition 

If you’re suffering with pain surrounding an injury, tweaking your diet may be helpful in pain management. However, changing your diet too rapidly may lead to binge eating and a lack of consistency in the long run. Small dietary changes can be the key to a better way of living. Eating a diet rich in protein can help to stimulate your body’s repair system, and there are lots of supplements that can help with this too!  Zooki have a wide range of effective and delicious vitamins that can help your body deal with pain and inflammation and this can help promote a positive mood. 

A deficiency in vitamin D can lead to a variety of symptoms that may affect other systems of the body as well as the mind. Many researchers have noted that many people with depression also have low Vitamin D levels. Some small studies have noted that different groups of people experience improvement in symptoms of depression after they start taking vitamin D supplements, however, this potential benefit isn’t completely clear yet. Vitamin D is also essential for healthy bones as it helps your body absorb calcium. Zooki’s very own vitamin D sachet is tasty and versatile, meaning you can have it directly from the sachet or mix it with your choice of breakfast. (PS: It’s great with porridge!)

Lifestyle

Humans are social beings; this means we are literally designed to meet and mix with new people. If lockdown has taught us anything it is how important our family and friends are and what an impact lockdown has had on our mental health. I’ve lost count on how many conversations I’ve had with patients who are now changing careers after doing some serious thinking about their priorities in lockdown. And you know what? They are right!

Make time for your friends and family and try to have fun! When we do these things it also releases Dopamine and Serotonin. Dopamine makes us feel good, which reduces depression, and Serotonin can help to reduce physical pain. Not a bad mix at all really?

Sleep

Poor sleep is often reported when people are suffering from acute pain. But how much sleep do we really need? The National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Sleep can affect how we cope with pain if we’re not getting enough of it. We need sleep to help our bodies process information and repair. But one thing is for sure, if you’re not getting enough of it everything becomes harder e.g. your ability to make rational decisions.

One of my aims as an Osteopath is to help patients manage their sleep through improving their symptoms, and good job too, as sleep is often the first thing reported to improve. It’s amazing to think that if someone is getting enough rest their whole mood and tolerance towards pain changes. If you’re not getting enough sleep, try cutting down on caffeine and making time to wind down before bed. This means limiting screen time to optimise your rest.

In conclusion, the pandemic has made patients deal with pain in a negative way, but there are plenty of things we can include to help limit poor mood. You don’t have to do all these things at once and small changes can make a big difference. A positive mentality provides the best foundation for recovery so it’s no surprise that there are plenty of things we can include to help limit poor mood. If you keep your body healthy, your body will keep your mind healthy.

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