Have you ever said: “All this stress is giving me a headache”, or maybe your chronic back pain  is worse when you find yourself in an emotionally difficult place. What used to be met with  skepticism and mockery, has now been validated by modern research – that there is indeed a  connection between emotions and pain – particularly chronic pain! 

According to palliative medicine physician David Buxton, MD, people with depression have  about three times the risk of those without it of developing chronic pain. And in turn, those with  chronic pain are about three times more likely to develop clinical depression. Multiple studies of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune disease and fibromyalgia  show that people who have more negative emotions, also experience more pain.  

The following are some of the common locations of stressed referral pain: 

  • Low Back
  • Knee
  • Shoulder/Scapula/Neck
  • Headaches 
  • Chest


Let’s look at how emotions play a role in pain perception: There are multiple pathways through  which pain signals get to the brain where they are registered. Those areas that receive pain related signals from the body are also involved in other functions, such as the regulation of  blood pressure or creating strong emotional responses. Others help us learn what to do or not  to do in the future – to avoid pain. 

Pain is a very personal experience. We all know the expression of having a high or low pain  threshold. It is true that the way people interpret and deal with their emotions influences the  patterns in the brain. For example, our level of fear of pain and how we think about pain affects  how our brain learns to deal with it over time.  

Dr. Buxton, director of the private Center for Palliative Psychiatry in Richmond, Virginia,  explains that our brains are very “plastic” and respond to retraining, redirection and reframing  which can help break down painful mental patterns.  

There are many ways for retraining your brain, such as Meditation, yoga, tai chi and of course  acupuncture.  

Acupuncture, in particular, has a two-fold affect on pain and pain perception.  It relieves pain by releasing endorphins which are the body’s pain killing chemicals. (endorphin  = endogenous, meaning internal, morphine) Secondly, it targets the part of the brain that  governs serotonin, a brain chemical regulating mood and emotions. 

When we are experiencing pain, or our pain worsens, we often don’t make a connection  between what goes on in our body and how we feel.  

Don’t minimize the effect of daily stressors and even past trauma on the manifestation of pain,  but look at it from a different perspective and choose a holistic approach of treatment that may  provide pain relief and overall emotional health and wellbeing.