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Chronic Pain Linked to Increased Risk of Suicide

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

It’s no surprise that chronic pain impacts one’s outlook and mental health. The word “chronic” means prolonged and enduring, indicating that the pain has no end in sight. Over time, chronic pain can wear on one’s psyche as well as one’s body. And according to research, this can have dangerous consequences.

A recent study of U.S. veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare System found that chronic back pain, migraine headaches, and “psychogenic” pain (i.e., pain with no known physical cause) were all associated with an increased risk of suicide. The researchers think that these types of chronic pain are more dangerous than others, such as arthritis, because fewer treatments are available for them.

More specifically, back pain was associated with a 13 percent increased risk of committing suicide, migraine headaches were linked to a 34 percent higher suicide risk, and psychogenic pain raised suicide risk by a whopping 58 percent.

Why such a dramatic increase in suicide risk when a person has psychogenic pain? I couldn’t find specific research on this, but I suspect it’s because psychogenic pain is the most frustrating form of chronic pain one can experience. Imagine feeling pain day in and day out – the kind of pain that affects your ability to function or be happy – and then being told that there is no identifiable cause, except your own mind. Pretty frustrating, yes? People with psychogenic pain may feel like no one takes them seriously or that doctors feel they are faking the pain. This can lead to depression or anger that may increase risk for suicide.

If you suffer from chronic pain, it’s important to address the psychological factors that accompany it as well as its physical aspects. The American Psychological Association offers the following tips for coping with chronic pain:

  • Take care of your body. Even if you don’t feel a direct benefit, it’s important to get adequate sleep, make healthy eating choices, and exercise in ways that are comfortable for you in order to manage the stress associated with chronic pain.
  • Find pleasurable distractions. People tend to notice chronic pain the most when they are doing nothing. By keeping busy with activities you enjoy, you’re more likely to distract yourself from the awareness of your physical discomfort.
  • Build a support network. Some people reach out to friends or family members, while others prefer to discuss their chronic pain with a support group or online community. Create a support network that fits your needs and personality, and don’t hesitate to lean on it.
  • Seek professional help. Find a trained counselor or psychologist if you’re having trouble coping with your chronic pain. And if you are ever having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately at 1-800-273-8255.


American Psychological Association (2013). Coping with chronic pain. Online article:

Chicago Tribune News Services (May 29, 2013). Some chronic pain linked to higher rate of veteran suicides. Chicago Tribune (Kindle version).

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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