Chronic pain and depression are two of the most common health problems Americans face. What's more, studies have found that these two conditions are often linked, afflicting the same sufferers.

Close to 6 million American adults report suffering from back pain, and studies have shown that depression is four times greater in people with chronic back pain than in those without. Similarly, a 2004 study published in the journal PAIN showed that the rate of depression is often directly proportional to pain severity.

Why Are Back Pain and Depression Linked?

  • In the brain. A normal brain works in a state of equilibrium. When one part of the brain is active, the others slow down. In the case of chronic pain sufferers, the region of the brain mostly associated with emotion never slows down regardless of other brain activity, according to a February 2008 study by Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. This imbalance can result in the feelings of depression often associated with back pain.

  • In the body. When a person experiences constant pain, it sets off a domino effect that results in symptoms related to depression. The same Feinberg School study reported that pain often makes it difficult to sleep, which can lead to fatigue and irritability during the day. In addition, a person with back pain may find it hard keep up with everyday movements ultimately resulting in lack of participation in enjoyable activities.

What Can You Do About Back Pain and Depression?

Coping with pain or depression is an on-going battle. Although your doctor can provide medical treatments, there are a few ways to manage your symptoms day to day.

  1. Document it. Keep track of your physical and/or emotional pain in a journal so that, if you need to, you can accurately communicate your symptoms with a doctor.
  2. Be active. Plan activities to help you gain a feeling of contribution. By completing small tasks, you will realize that you can be of help, despite any pain you may be experiencing.
  3. Get support. Joining an online community may help you become conscious of the fact that you are not alone.
  4. Enjoy life. Make a list of the things you know you can do and try to do one of those things each day. In addition, look for new hobbies, games, or people to spend time with.


Carroll, PhD, Linda J.; Cassidy, PhD, J. David; Côté, PhD, Pierre. "Depression as a Risk Factor for Onset of an Episode of Troublesome Neck and Low Back Pain." PAIN ®. Volume 107 number 1. Pages 134-139. International Association for the Study of Pain. Seattle. January 2004.