The Link Between Psychological Trauma and Chronic Pain

May 11, 2023 | Conditions

Numerous studies show that trauma increases a person’s risk of having chronic pain, even if it had not directly caused it. According to available stats, up to 60% of people with arthritis and up to 90% of people with fibromyalgia say they had experienced trauma at some point. Comparatively speaking, the prevalence of prior trauma is often at least twice as high among patients with chronic pain as in the general population. Now that we have established the link between psychological trauma and chronic pain, let’s examine it more closely and figure out what we can do to address it. 

What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is the physical discomfort that lasts longer than the body’s normal healing process. Injuries, inflammation, arthropathies, and neuropathies can cause pain, although some people experience discomfort without these conditions.

Although many individuals know that emotional stress can induce headaches, IBS, and stomach aches, they may not be aware that it can also result in other physical symptoms and even chronic muscle pain. One rational explanation for this is that people who are nervous and stressed out tend to have more rigid and constricted muscles, leading to muscular spasm and fatigue over time.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an incident, a sequence of events, or a collection of conditions that an individual perceives as physically, emotionally, or life-threatening and that have a long-lasting negative impact on their functioning and well-being. Everybody can experience trauma, no matter their age or gender.

Most common traumatic events are active combat situations, abuse (whether it’s sexual, psychological, or physical), natural disasters, or even medical traumas or accidents.

The Link Between Mind and Body

While we’re still exploring the link between psychological trauma and chronic pain, we’re all aware of the different links between our minds and body. They can affect one another in a variety of ways. We also understand that pain and stress feed off one another in a vicious cycle. Stress can aggravate pain in a variety of ways, including tightening muscles and elevating inflammation. Trauma and unresolved emotional difficulties increase stress, which feeds the vicious cycle of pain and tension.

This implies that trauma may affect our physical health in addition to the emotional toll it takes on us. This does not diminish the validity of our chronic pain or imply that it is “all in our heads,” as stigma so frequently implies. Since our brains are the source of all pain, chronic pain is as genuine as acute pain or any other physical health problem.

Symptoms of Trauma and Chronic Pain

Trauma and PTSD are characterized by many shared symptoms. Hypervigilance, reliving the traumatic incident, poor sleep habits, ineffective emotional control, sadness, and anxiety are a few of these. Our physical health is also negatively impacted by these symptoms, in addition to our mental health. Physical and psychological problems compound over time, trapping the trauma survivor in an endless circle of suffering.


A trauma symptom known as hypervigilance is characterized by a persistent awareness of external threats or dangers. Trauma symptoms are a result of incomplete processing of the initial danger. Hypervigilant people find it difficult to unwind and are prone to feel anxious frequently. Hyperarousal was originally intended to keep the body prepared for combat or flight in case of an impending attack. 

Long periods of hyperarousal, which is another word for hypervigilance, cause the muscles to become tight. This can lead to a lot of chronic pain in the neck, back, legs, and other parts of the body. Additionally, some trauma survivors have an extreme sensitivity to their pain. It is seen as a danger, which increases the stress response.

Poor Sleep

Sleep is essential for the body’s optimal operation. Lack of sleep dramatically exacerbates chronic pain in those who already experience it. Lack of sleep also affects our capacity to handle stress, which is a crucial ability for overcoming the impacts of trauma.

Substance Abuse and Chronic Pain

Untreated trauma patients are more prone to use harmful avoidant coping mechanisms to deal with their unpleasant feelings. The behaviors of avoidance range from substance misuse to social isolation and disregard for personal ties. A person who withdraws from others may also decide isolate from the world at large, producing a decline in physical constitution. In a similar vein, abusing drugs or alcohol can result in significant despair and anxiety, which can fuel further withdrawal and inactivity. If you are struggling with substance abuse and chronic pain, consider the help you need. There are rehab and recovery centers which specialize in treating patients whose condition stems from trauma related ailments.

Anxiety and Depression

Trauma and persistent pain can both manifest as symptoms of depression and anxiety. Because of the nature of depression, people who experience it may find it challenging to take an active role in their own treatment and efficient pain management. For instance, exercise is essential for both excellent physical and mental health. However, finding the will to get back into shape can be quite difficult while suffering from depression and anxiety as well as chronic pain. As a result, the pain symptoms persist or exacerbate, which makes the despair and anxiety worsen as well.


Many psychological treatments can help with trauma. Moreover, numerous psychosocial treatments are quite successful in treating chronic pain. Patients can have very beneficial results from a comprehensive approach to treating trauma and chronic pain, receiving relief from both physical and psychological symptoms.

Furthermore, since chronic pain can get quite bad, it’s good to know there are ways to relieve chronic pain with physical exercise and yoga. Topical therapies, including ice and heat application, can be used to reduce the symptoms of chronic pain. While this is not a permanent solution, it can be quite helpful in everyday life.

Final Thoughts

The link between psychological trauma and chronic pain is indisputable. It’s a vicious cycle that often feels very difficult to break out of. However, some treatments and therapies can help you or your loved ones deal with psychological trauma. This will, in turn, also help ease your chronic pain over time.

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