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Chronic Pain May Increase a Person’s Risk of Suicide



Individuals who suffer from chronic back pain or migraines have a higher likelihood of attempting suicide, regardless of whether they also suffer from depression or other psychiatric problems, according to the results of a new study.

Researchers who conducted the study at the Veterans Affairs Serious Mental Illness Treatment Resource and Evaluation Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan believe the results of this study should serve as a warning to doctors seeing patients suffering from specific pain conditions to be on the lookout for signs of a potential suicide attempt.

While psychiatric factors play an important role when determining a person’s risk of suicide, researchers now caution that certain aspects of chronic pain may also raise a person’s risk.

The results of the study were recently published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

An Increased Risk

As part of a larger overall study, researchers studied the medical records of over 4.8 million individuals who were under the care of the U.S. Veterans Health Administration in 2005. Researchers began their study by identifying patients who suffered from chronic pain and then followed those individuals for the next three years to determine if any died from an apparent suicide attempt.

Researchers then examined each case to determine if any links existed between the death by suicide, which currently ranks as the 10th most common form of death in the U.S., and clinical diagnoses of any condition that causes chronic pain, such as migraines, back pain, or psychogenic pain, a condition that causes pain related to a variety of psychological factors.

Chronic pain has long been thought of anecdotally as a potential risk factor of suicide by members of the medical community. While a number of mitigating factors play a role in whether a person seriously considers committing suicide, chronic pain can act as the tipping point of whether someone carries through with an intention to end their own life. The results of this study could lead therapists to begin asking patients whether they suffer from chronic pain when attempting to determine a patient’s state of mind and whether he or she is a suicide risk.

Researchers determined that patients suffering from pain caused by psychogenic conditions were at the highest risk of committing suicide, followed by those suffering from chronic migraines and back pain. Psychogenic pain frequently results from emotional or mental problems, and while rare, the condition isn’t well understood by doctors.

Medical experts suspect that since this type of pain is so poorly understood, that many patients suffering from pain related to these types of conditions don’t receive the pain management treatment they need to reduce their suffering. Patients suffering from this type of pain may become despondent and become hopeless when considering whether their pain will ever improve.

Helping to Cope

As with most instances of suicide, researchers believe feelings of hopelessness play a vital role in why individuals suffering from chronic pain have an elevated risk of suicide. Individuals who suffer from chronic pain may find their social and occupational functions severely limited, which only further plunges them into despair.

Researchers urge friends and family of individuals who suffer from chronic pain to monitor their behavior closely and look out for warning signs such as expressions of feeling hopelessness, deep depression, or any indications a person doesn’t expect to be around in the future. If friends or family recognize any of these traits, they should urge the patient to seek treatment.