Chronic pain and mental health

It has been said that time heals all wounds. I don’t agree. The wounds remain. Time – the mind, protecting its sanity – covers them with some scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone. 

Rose Kennedy

Pain is something that everyone experiences. It is a signal that there is something wrong in the body. According to the CDC, 20.4% of adults had chronic pain and 7.4% of adults had chronic pain that frequency limited life or work activities. This data also found that chronic pain increased as people got older. And while we are still recording data, we have preliminary reports about long-term effects of Covid-19, we find that different types of pain is one of those effects.  This study found that chronic pain was highest in women at 21.7%, and that women are less likely to be believed about pain by their doctors. This is something that is also seen in physician’s responses to people of color, as they are often acting on unconscious bias about how minoritized individuals feel less pain or feel pain differently than white people. 

What is Pain?

There are many ways to define pain, and how you define it impacts how you approach it. Do we consider physical pain? What about emotional pain? Social pain? Psychological pain? Here are some common types of pain:

  • Acute pain
  • Chronic pain
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Psychogenic pain

Acute pain is a sudden pain that has a limited duration, usually a few minutes to three months, sometimes up to six months. Chronic pain is more long-term pain that can be constant or intermittent, even after healing is complete. Neuropathic pain is pain caused by nerve damage and is often described as shooting or burning pain. Nociceptive pain is pain caused by tissue damage. Psychogenic pain is pain that might have started physically, but is prolonged by fear, stress, depression, anxiety, or is caused by a psychological condition. Often psychogenic pain is a type of pain that doesn’t match the symptoms a person is experiencing, and is diagnosed after everything else has been ruled out.

How is Pain Processed

The gate-control theory of pain was developed to look at three systems involved in the perception of pain. These systems are the peripheral nerves that first receive pain signals, the spinal cord which receives the signal and sends it to different areas of the brain. In the brain there are different areas that can be impacted by pain such as the limbic system developing a memory of pain, and some emotional areas. This process can be inhibited at different points in the pathway, and through other pathways that responds to deep touch and inhibits the release of pain signals. While this is an abstract look at how pain is processed by the body, it is important to look at how pain affects everyday life. 

How pain impacts life

Pain can have a profound impact on a person’s life; from limiting the things a person can do, to decreasing the quality of sleep, to leading to mental health issues, pain can bring about a lot of changes. Chronic pain specifically can impact physical, psychological, and social functioning. Often pain management is primarily handled through pharmaceuticals, but we are now seeing how that overmedication is leading to increased substance abuse. Studies have shown that people with chronic pain are four times more likely to have depression and anxiety than those without pain. 

Common chronic pain conditions

There are many different things that can cause chronic pain, but some of the most common are: 

  • Arthritis/joint pain
  • Back pain
  • Cancer pain
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Muscle pain
  • Nerve damage

This pain can lead to what is known as the “terrible triad.” The terrible triad happens when pain interferes with the normal activity of life leading to depression and irritability, which can lead to insomnia. This state of being in pain, being depressed and being sleepless create a triad of suffering.  

Another thing that is often not considered is how pain affects younger people. In a study from 2016, it was conservatively estimated that 20-35% of children and adolescents are affected by chronic pain worldwide. In children, pain is often under-recognized and under-treated, especially when they might not have the language skills to express what they’re experiencing. Common causes of pediatric chronic pain include: 

  • Headaches
  • Recurrent abdominal pain
  • Limb pain
  • Back pain
  • Pain without any known cause

In children this pain can impact their development because it can lead to the inability to participate in age-appropriate social activities, missing school, isolation, difficulty forming interpersonal relationships, and mental health issues.

Treatment for pain

So as stated above medication the the primary treatment for pain, and should be continued but there are other treatments to keep in mind, that should be monitored by a medical professional. This includes:

  • Physical therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Behavioral Therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Neurofeedback
  • EaseVRx virtual reality system

Some therapeutic modalities, specifically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) have been shown to help relieve some in managing the pain and discomfort. 

Neurofeedback and pain

So what is neurofeedback. Neurofeedback is a kind of biofeedback that has been in use for decades based on direct, behavioral training of the brain using an electroencephalograph (EEG). We place electrodes on the scalp to observe the different brainwaves and learn different information based on where, the frequency of, and when certain brainwaves occur. This technique allows us to observe the brain in action as the brain learn to function more efficiently. 

For pain management, the theory is that neurofeedback works by teaching self-regulation. Studies suggest that neurofeedback can be used to affect the processing of pain perception, such as in the gate-control theory discussed above. Some chronic pain conditions neurofeedback has been used to treat before include: 

  • Trigeminal Neuralgia
  • Headache and migraines
  • Fibromyalgia 


Ibric, V. L., and Dragomirescu, L. G. (2009). “Neurofeedback in pain management,” in Introduction to Quantitative EEG and Neurofeedback. (New York, NY: Elsevier Inc.), 417–51. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-374534-7.00016-2

Here at TriWellness we do offer neurofeedback and a pediatric chronic illness support group.

This month’s blog post was written by Jessie Duncan, MA, LPC, one of our trained specialists in Neurofeedback and chronic illness specialist.