chronic pain and trauma survivor

Making Sense of the Trauma-Pain Connection

People who are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at a higher risk for other health problems like depression or anxiety. What many people are surprised to learn is that having PTSD also puts them at a higher risk for developing chronic pain. 

At Awakenings Treatment Center, we regularly work with chronic pain patients who have a history of trauma. However, many of our clients aren’t aware that they are trauma victims. They think "trauma" only affects war veterans or sexual assault victims. The reality is that trauma comes in many forms, affects many people and is a driving force behind chronic pain. 

If you are currently dealing with chronic pain with no known origin, our mental health treatment center can help. Before scheduling an assessment, let’s break down what trauma is, how it affects everyday people and its link to chronic pain. 

What is Trauma? 

Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event, such as an accident, assault or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, it’s normal to feel scared, in shock and in denial. As time goes by, you might have flashbacks, sporadic emotions and physical symptoms like headaches and nausea. However, these symptoms should get better over time and not interfere with a normal life. If they do, you might need therapy to help you deal with these emotions.

Here are the psychological and physical symptoms of trauma:

Psychological symptoms 

  • Anxiety and fear 
  • Flashbacks 
  • Guilt and shame
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Feeling disconnected from others 
  • Anger and irritability
  • Mood swings 

Physical symptoms 

  • Fatigue 
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Racing heartbeat 
  • Aches and pains 
  • Muscle tension 
  • Nightmares 

Remember, there is no “right” way to think, feel or respond to traumatic events. However, if your symptoms don’t ease up or become more severe, you could have PTSD. Fortunately, you don't have to be stuck in psychological shock. Chronic pain treatment in Agoura Hills is available. 

trauma survivor

What Causes Trauma? 

Traumatic events are events that cause physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological harm. When you go through these events, it's normal to feel threatened, anxious and scared. As a result, you might need time to process what happened and recover from the trauma. 

There are many events that can be considered harmful. It doesn’t matter what other people think of the event you went through. If it left you feeling frightened or scared, your brain perceived it as a threat and you need time to heal. 

Here are some examples of trauma. 

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce or separation
  • Serious illness
  • Physical injury
  • Natural disasters 
  • War 
  • Terrorism 
  • Sexual assault 
  • Domestic abuse 
  • Neglect or abandonment 

When Does Trauma Turn into PTSD? 

Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder share some similarities, but they are two different things. Trauma refers to a set of mild to severe reactions following a traumatic event. In the past, people assumed that traumatic events were only related to direct physical harm or violence. We now know that this is not the case. People experience trauma in many different ways throughout their lives. 

After experiencing a traumatic event, you have protective factors that allow you to heal. These include supportive social networks, mental health intervention, coping strategies and pleasurable activities. By taking advantage of these things, you can process your emotions and begin the healing process. 

However, there is a chance that you might not recover. You may continue to experience symptoms that interfere with a normal, healthy life. You may also have trouble forming relationships, trusting others or concentrating on work, school or family. If this happens, you could have PTSD. 

Diagnostic Criteria for PTSD

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the current criteria for PTSD includes: 

  • Exposure to actual or threatened death, injury or sexual violence
  • Symptoms after the event, such as flashbacks, intrusive memories and recurring nightmares
  • Avoidance of things related to the event 
  • Negative change in thoughts and mood 
  • Changes in reactivity, such as being easily startled 

Fortunately, both trauma and PTSD can be successfully treated. The key is recognizing the need for treatment and where to go for help. Sadly, many people don’t realize that they are suffering from trauma until other symptoms emerge, such as chronic pain. 

chronic pain and trauma survivor

Understanding the Trauma-Pain Link 

Studies consistently show that pain is one of the most common physical problems associated with PTSD, regardless of the trauma suffered. Why do they occur together? There are a few reasons for this.

  • Traumatic events cause pain. Many traumatic events lead to physical or emotional pain. Suffering a car accident, physical assault or natural disaster can inflict injuries that lead to physical discomfort. 
  • PTSD symptoms cause pain. Some PTSD symptoms can create pain in the body. For example, hyperarousal symptoms can make the muscles feel tense and sore. 
  • Lack of sleep. People who suffer trauma often have a hard time sleeping at night because of flashbacks and nightmares. Not getting enough sleep can lead to muscle aches and pains. 
  • Internalized feelings. Victims of trauma often bear feelings of shame and guilt following the event, especially if someone else was hurt. This shame can manifest in different ways, including joint pain, muscle soreness and stomachaches. 

Aside from the obvious, there is something else to be aware of. Trauma causes the nervous system to be in a constant state of reactivity. Let's learn more about this in the next section. 

The Nervous System’s Role in Trauma and Pain 

When you go through a traumatic experience, many of your reactions are related to anxiety because the nervous system is in action. To avoid feeling anxious or upset, you might avoid the people, places and things related to the event. The problem is that when you are anxious all the time, it keeps the nervous system in a state of alarm. It’s just as hyper-aware and tense as if the trauma were happening all over again. 

The “fight or flight” response is meant to protect you from harmful situations. It kicks you into gear and gets you prepared to fight or flee. If you were being attacked by someone, you would need these heightened functions to protect yourself. However, if you’re trying to make it through a normal work day, you don’t need to be on edge. 

This constant state of anxiety is what makes trauma victims nervous all the time. It can also make them overly sensitive to normal stimuli, something called central sensitization. 

Central sensitization 

Central sensitization is a condition of the nervous system that is associated with the onset of chronic pain. When this occurs, the nervous system gets wound up and stays in a persistent state of reactivity. This lowers the threshold for pain. 

There are two main characteristics to central sensitization. Both involve a heightened sensitivity to pain and touch. 

  • Allodynia. Allodynia occurs when you experience pain from things that are not usually painful, such as a back massage. It’s believed that this touch sends signals to the nervous system, and the nervous system perceives it as being painful. 
  • Hyperalgesia. Hyperalgesia occurs when something normally (but slightly) painful is perceived as being extremely painful. An example is getting a cut on the knee. If you have hyperalgesia, the nervous system will amplify this pain so that it feels much worse than it is. 

Chronic pain patients have a hard time coping mentally, and for understandable reasons. They know it’s not normal to overreact to a simple bump or scratch, but their body is telling them otherwise. There are also times when the person doesn’t realize their reactions are exaggerated. It’s not until family and friends point it out that they become aware. 

Can Trauma and Pain Be Treated at the Same Time? 

Years ago, trauma and pain would have been treated separately. Today, we know that treating both simultaneously is the best approach. The good news is that trauma, PTSD and chronic pain respond well to treatment. 

Below you will find the most commonly used treatments that provide great results for chronic pain patients with underlying trauma. 

Psychotherapy 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of psychotherapy that is aimed at improving mental health. During CBT, you will work with a therapist to become aware of negative thinking. You will learn how to turn this into positive thinking, as well as discover techniques for dealing with stressful situations. 
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). DBT is another form of therapy that works well for PTSD. The goal of this therapy is to help you feel more grounded in your life. DBT focuses on mindfulness, emotion regulation, interpersonal skills and distress tolerance.
  • Experiential trauma resolution. This therapeutic technique uses expressive tools and activities to identify emotions, explore negative feelings and process past experiences. Some of the activities used include arts and crafts, guided imagery, role-playing and music. The goal is to free yourself from painful memories.

Science-Based 

  • Neurofeedback. Also called EEG biofeedback, this therapy changes the way the brain processes information. Research shows that neurofeedback sharpens attention, relieves anxiety, boosts mood and enhances learning by reshaping brain networks. The goal for trauma patients is to change the "reactive" brain into a calmer, more relaxed "interactive" brain. 
  • Alpha-stim. This FDA approved device stimulates alpha activity in the brain. When these “feel good” brain waves increase, anxiety and overthinking are decreased. Clients report feeling less stressed, less anxious and less compulsive. Insomnia is also well-treated with alpha-stim. 
  • Hemi-sync. Hemi-sync is a therapeutic treatment that uses sound signals to induce positive mental, emotional and physical states. This works well for pain patients because they feel less depressed, less anxious and less hopeless. 

Lifestyle 

  • Mindfulness-based therapies. Mindfulness is a valuable asset for trauma survivors. It can help you focus on the present, self-regulate your emotions and increase self-compassion. Of course, we are careful with this practice, as we don’t want our clients to re-traumatize themselves during a meditative state. 
  • Self-care. There is no substitute for self-care. It's imperative that you take interest in your health and well-being by eating nutritious, well-balanced meals, getting enough sleep at night and exercising daily. By combining this with the appropriate therapies and medications, you can protect yourself from future pain and trauma.

therapy for trauma survivors

The Awakenings Difference: Emotional, Physical and Psychological Healing 

Awakenings Treatment Center is an intensive outpatient mental health facility that helps people from all walks of life. Many of our clients come to us when they are suffering from chronic pain with no known origin. Our goal is to dig deep and find the source of the pain. The way to healing is through a combination of therapies, lifestyle changes and self-care. 

By choosing us for chronic pain treatment in Agoura Hills, you will receive a specialized treatment plan that is designed to meet your needs. We believe in treating the whole person - mind, body and spirit. Thanks to cutting-edge treatment technologies and science-based therapies, your treatment plan will include a wide range of healing tools that can be applied to your everyday life. 

Trauma is Stored in Our Bodies. Find Help Today. 

Trauma is not just stored in our thoughts and memories but in every fiber of our being. If you suffered trauma, you could be storing the effects in your cells, muscles and tissues. This is why it’s possible to suffer physical and emotional problems for the long term. 

Fortunately, you are not alone and you do not have to suffer in silence. Both trauma and chronic pain respond well to treatment and self-care. Better yet, you can build a stronger, healthier and more grounded "you" who is ready to face the world. To start your recovery, contact Awakenings Treatment Center today.