What Is Psychogenic Pain?

Unfortunately Psychogenic Pain Is Hard to Treat

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Getty Images/PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou

Psychogenic pain is the term for pain that is primarily caused by psychological factors, such as depression and anxiety. Psychogenic pain is also known as psychological pain or depression. While psychogenic pain is primarily psychological, it is a very real type of chronic pain. People with depression and anxiety may report psychogenic pain all over their bodies, even when there is no apparent physical cause.

Psychogenic pain is often harder to treat than nociceptive pain or neuropathic pain. Traditional painkillers are designed to treat physical problems, such as inflammation or nerve dysfunction. With psychogenic pain, however, there is often no physical cause to find and treat. Non-pharmaceutical pain treatments, such as TENS and distraction, tend to be more effective at reducing psychogenic pain than traditional painkillers.

What Triggers Psychogenic Pain

Although this pain is very real for those who experience it, psychogenic pain is not an official diagnosis. Furthermore, no specific test exists to determine whether you have psychogenic pain.

This type of pain can have many different psychological triggers including the following:

  • beliefs
  • emotions
  • fears
  • psychiatric disease like depression or anxiety

What Are the Symptoms of Psychogenic Pain?

Psychogenic pain can present in a variety of ways. Here are some common symptoms attributable to this condition:

  • muscle pains
  • stomach pains
  • back pains
  • headaches

How Does a Physician Determine Whether You Have Psychogenic Pain?

When you present to your physician with pain, your physician will do a physical exam to figure out the neurological origin of this pain. With psychogenic pain, tangible organic or physical findings are neither present nor substantial enough to account for the pain that you experience.

Instead, psychological factors contribute to the onset, severity and exacerbation of the pain. Your physician should elicit a history to uncover such psychological factors.

What Are the Repercussions of Psychogenic Pain?

Psychogenic pain can have serious consequences and erode your quality of life and health status. First, people with psychogenic pain can miss work due to the pain. Second, people with psychogenic pain often spend a lot of time visiting with health care professionals trying to figure out how to treat the pain. Third, psychogenic pain can contribute to the abuse of and dependence on pain medications (think opioid pain relievers like Norco or Vicodin).

How Is Psychogenic Pain Treated?

Because we don't understand psychogenic pain that well, this condition can be very difficult to treat. Often, mental health professionals work with physicians to treat this condition. Here are some possible treatments for psychogenic pain:

  • non-narcotic pain killers (think NSAIDs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen)

Please understand that opioid painkillers are bad treatment options for psychogenic pain. These medications fail to target the root cause of this condition, which is psychological, and instead can result in abuse and dependence, which are frightening problems on their own.

Selected Sources

Elder WG. Somatic Symptom Disorder (Previously Somatoform Disorder), Factitious Disorder, & Malingering. In: South-Paul JE, Matheny SC, Lewis EL. eds. CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment: Family Medicine, 4e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2015. Accessed January 22, 2016.

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