Chronic Pain Affects the Whole Body

Experiencing pain on a long term or constant basis is exhausting, literally. The body releases a variety of chemicals and hormones in response to the stress of pain. This has debilitating effects on one’s wellbeing over time.

Several body systems are affected by pain:


The body reacts to pain with a fight or flight response. When you are in your pain, your nervous system reacts as though you are shutterstock_217177096under attack and prepares the whole body to cope with the danger. The heart beats faster. In addition, blood pressure rises and the need for oxygen also goes up. This leads to breathing more rapidly. For people who already suffer from heart or lung disease, pain can put additional strain on these body systems.

The body may also put itself into a state where it is highly prepared to make blood clots. Remember, the body is responding as though it is under attack, so this is a life protecting reaction. However, this  leads to an increased risk of developing blood clots in blood vessels; these clots can suddenly break off and lead to stroke or heart attack.


If you are in pain, and something you do makes the pain worse, you tend to avoid doing it. When breathing hurts, it can lead to secondary complications. Many times people who have back, neck, stomach or chest pain hurt more if they take a deep breath. This is particularly true after an accident or surgery, when all you want to do is lie as still as possible. By holding still and only taking shallow breaths, you reduce the pain sensation, but put the lungs at risk.


When you don’t take a deep breath, natural fluid secretions begin to build up in the air sacks of the lungs, which are called alveoli. These secretions are a perfect environment for micro-organisms such as bacteria to breed. Individuals who do not have adequate pain management are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia because they are not taking deep breaths and clearing the fluid out of their lungs.

Tension and Muscle Spasm

Pain leads to muscle tension. Many times individuals in pain do something called “guarding”. This is tightening of the muscles around the area that hurts, in order to protect it. The stress of pain also leads to chronically tight muscles which can worsen the pain. It’s a difficult cycle to break.

Once muscle spasm sets in, it’s usually necessary for some type of physical therapy, stretching and exercise therapy to loosen the muscles and start relieving the pain.

Psychological Effects

Pain and anxiety go hand in hand. If you are feeling afraid or worried, your pain will feel worse. When constantly uncomfortable, and with all of the fight or flight hormones rushing throughout the system, it’s easy to start feeling anxious.


Long term pain also leads to depression. When in chronic pain, enjoyment of day to day activities lessens. There may also be grieving because you are no longer able to do things you used to be able to do. Pain leads to a feeling of not having control, and that can be frightening.


There are many therapies available for pain, and they usually work best if used together.

The first step is to receive a full medical evaluation, and further workup by a specialist, if that is indicated. That way the full cause of the pain can be understood and treated appropriately.

After that physical therapy, relaxation exercises, alternative treatments such as massage or acupuncture and medications may be prescribed. In some cases surgery is helpful to remove the cause of the pain.

Relieving pain can take time. It is important for overall health that the pain cycle is broken. If you are in chronic pain ask your licensed medical care provider for help.

The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed medical professional. It is essential that you discuss with your primary care provider any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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