So Depressed it Hurts

Studies reveal that a depressed mood increases the perception of pain. A new study at the University of Oxford found that depression and pain often co-occur but the underlying reasons for this has been unknown. To examine the interaction between depression and pain, Dr. Chantal Berna and colleagues used brain imaging to see how healthy volunteers responded to pain while feeling low.

Their research revealed that inducing depressed mood disrupted a portion of the participants’ neurocircuitry that regulates emotion, causing an enhanced perception of pain. According to Dr. Berna healthy people were made sad by negative thoughts and depressing music. They discovered that their brains processed pain more emotionally, which lead to them finding the pain more unpleasant.

The authors speculate that being in a sad state of mind and feeling low disables one’s ability to regulate the negative emotion with feeling pain. Pain, thus has a greater impact. Rather than merely being a consequence of having pain, depressed mood may drive pain and cause it to feel worse.

The research suggests that a depressed mood leads to maladaptive changes in brain function associated with pain and that depressed mood could be a target for treatment by medicines or psychotherapy in this context.