Chronic Pain is a Form of Torture

Many experts believe trauma can play a pivotal role in chronic pain.

For example, a traumatic event (like a physical assault or war injury) can create physical pain and/or lead to psychological issues like PTSD that exacerbate pain. Likewise, unresolved trauma from a person’s past (such as childhood abuse or neglect) can also resurface as physical pain in the present.

While this theory is fascinating and backed by some solid research,* I’ve never thought it had anything to do with my pain, personally.

You see, I’ve never experienced anything traumatic. *knock on wood* Since there is no clear trauma at the root of my pain, I figured it must simply be the result of bad luck and bad genes.

However, I might have been telling myself a big lie.

I now believe everyone who has chronic pain — for any reason — has a connection to trauma. That’s because being in chronic pain is a tortuous experience, and torture (as I think we can all agree) is inherently traumatic.

Like torture, chronic pain causes you to be trapped in a situation in which you are no longer in control and have no ability to tap out, time out, or scream “Uncle!” Like torture, it’s an experience that lasts an indeterminate length of time — until it ends or you do (e.g. passing out, dying, etc.)

  • Sometimes, similar to the torture of a branding or maiming, it can be violent, striking hard and fast out of seemingly nowhere, bringing you to your knees and leaving you incapacitated for days.
  • Sometimes, similar to the torture of being strung on a rack or having water dripped upon you, it can be slow, steady and unrelenting. You have the faculties to handle the discomfort at first, but as the minutes turn into hours, the hours into days, the days into weeks, it pushes you to the limits of what you can endure.
  • Sometimes, similar to the torture of being forced to listen to the same song over and over again, it can be psychological in nature. All day long your body is screaming at you. Some days you can function in spite of the noise, some days you can’t. Regardless the same song keeps playing.
  • Sometimes, similar to the torture of being kept in solitary confinement, it can torture you through deprivation. All of things that keep you healthy and sane — your work, your relationships with others, your ability to get out your house — are all taken away from you, leaving your world very small and very dark.

Just because these things don’t happen to you during a war doesn’t mean they aren’t traumatic. Just because they are not inflicted upon you by another person doesn’t make them any less scary. Just because they happen in the presence of caring friends and family doesn’t mean they are any less damaging to your mental health.

Your pain is not all in your head, but it IS messing with it.

Bad luck and bad genes are only part of the puzzle. You need to also acknowledge the role trauma plays in your pain, and seek help from qualified mental health professionals who are trained in healing it. It can ultimately make a big difference in your recovery.

Jennifer Kane is the author of Chronic Pain Recovery: A Practical Guide to Putting Your Life Back Together After Everything Has Fallen Apart.

*Interested in learning more? Check out The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk MD

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