Emotional, Physical Trauma & Chronic Pain

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Allen Hume, Ph.D. and Maureen C. Pierce, Ph.D.

Trauma is present in approximately 40% or more of individuals who suffer from chronic pain, whether it happened before the onset of pain (i.e. childhood abuse), or was the cause of the pain (serious motor vehicle accident). The pain we experience may be affected by our previous trauma history. We may spend a lot of time thinking about painful emotional events, we may be unable to work or "physically" manage our traumatic memories any longer due to pain, or the pain may serve as a trigger for past negative emotional experiences.

In order to effectively manage the pain and trauma, both issues will require your attention, along with your healthcare provider. Many times, we don't want to disclose information about past trauma. We may not feel ready to trust the provider with that information. We might think that our pain won’t be taken seriously. Seeking care from a psychologist or other mental health provider who has experience with both pain and trauma is most likely to be helpful. This provider can help you unravel the complex interaction between pain and trauma and develop effective coping skills. In addition, if and when it is appropriate, there are therapies to reprocess the experience that helps resolve the emotional pain, which in turn may also help the physical pain.

Steps to Get There

  1. Learn more about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), trauma and how it interacts with pain. There are many good resources listed below that you can use.
  2. Learn ways to reduce your stress and tolerate distress, including breathing exercises, guided imagery, relaxation skills and meditation. The more you can self-soothe, the better you will be able to manage traumatic stress.
  3. Listen to your favorite music, read a good book or watch a movie you enjoy.
  4. If you have PTSD, professional intervention is most helpful. Talk to your healthcare provider for a referral to a mental health provider who works with both pain and trauma.
  5. Like other forms of anxiety, individuals with traumatic stress benefit from good social and family support. Be sure to seek out others for emotional support, leisure activities and skills development.
  6. Consider joining a therapy group for individuals who have experienced trauma and pain. The more resources you have the better.


• EMDR Support Network, emdrsupport.net
• U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, www.ptsd.va.gov
• National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov
• American Psychological Association, www.apa.org