In my everyday practice as a spine surgeon who cares for people with some of the most devastating spinal deformities, I can certainly attest to seeing a number of patients who bring overwhelming depression and chronic pain into my office when they first visit. With May as National Mental Health Month, I’d like to shed some light on this very important subject of depression and its connection to chronic back pain, as well as to reduce the stigma that can unfortunately accompany discussions of mental illness. Like the spine condition that brings a patient into my office, the depression they suffer is absolutely REAL and it deserves to be acknowledged. Unfortunately, when depression enters into the mix of other symptoms that accompany a spinal disorder, it can become a vicious cycle. Depression can make the feeling and intensity of back pain worse and the elevated pain can deepen the depression.
Now, it’s important to note that occasional episodes of sadness are a normal part of the human emotional experience. But when these feelings last longer than a couple weeks or engulf a person to the point where everyday living is made even tougher than the chronic back pain has already made it, this is where depression truly becomes a medical diagnosis. In those early appointments where back pain may be at its peak and depression at its worst, it is important for me to help my patients understand that depression is common when battling a condition that brings on chronic pain. Of course, that doesn’t make these symptoms “OK” and it certainly doesn’t mean that any of it should just be “lived with.” It’s just important for people under these circumstances to feel like they’re not alone or “crazy.”
For some people who are dealing with a chronic back pain condition or spinal deformity that has already left them unable to walk or move normally, the added weight of depression can make life for some feel like quicksand. As I mentioned above, the symptoms of Clinical Depression symptoms go well beyond “moodiness,” which is the way some people who aren’t suffering can view it. Depression can do actual damage. It’s hard for someone to focus on getting the best treatment for their spine condition when depression robs them of the ability to do even the most simple of daily tasks without great and exhausting effort. However, this existence is the reality for some and warrants acknowledgement, acceptance and empathy from clinicians and caregivers.
If you or someone you care about is suffering from a condition that brings on chronic back pain and it isn’t being managed appropriately, don’t hesitate to seek expert advice from a physician who has expertise in spine care. With expert and experienced diagnosis and treatment, “relief” becomes so much more than a prescription for medication. Getting to the bottom of what is causing the back pain in the first place is critical. At the same time, it is important for people to know that even what seems like the most extreme depression symptoms associated with the condition are absolutely treatable. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor and ask for help. It’s what we’re here to do.
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