Poorly Treated Chronic Pain Causes Severe Complications

September 20, 2022

Summary: Experts say poorly treated pain may result in more severe complications than assumed earlier. It is known that poorly treated chronic pain causes an increase in blood pressure and cardiovascular issues. However, ill-treated chronic pain causes a constant increase in insulin, cortisol, and adrenalin, thus having broader adverse health effects. It is especially worth noticing that high cortisol causes changes in calcium metabolism, thus significantly increasing the risk of osteoporosis, arthritis, scoliosis, and other bone and joint disorders.

Data suggests that almost one-fifth of US adults are living with high-impact chronic pain. What is regretful is that most of these patients fail to get complete relief due to inadequate treatment. Even the rise of opioid addiction in the US has a lot to do with these chronic pains.

However, new studies suggest that pain is not just an unpleasant sensation. It is also about significant stress causing changes in the body and leading to serious complications. Acute pain causes acute stress with an increased adrenaline rush, high glucose, and changes in the autonomic nervous system. Most people would experience a sudden increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

Although the body can more or less counter acute stress, it is not made to handle chronic stress responses caused by chronic pain. Therefore, continuous pain, even if low grade, would result in chronic stress response, causing a negative impact on cardiovascular and endocrinal health.

Some of the complications associated with high-impact pain, whether acute or chronic, include:

  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate and thus cardiac load
  • Increase in bad cholesterol
  • Development of atherosclerosis over the long run
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and sudden death.

Although science has long known about the above complications of severe pain, it is less aware of the long-term influences of pain on other body functions. Pain is an alarm signal that something is wrong in certain body parts, and something must be done. However, if this alarm keeps ringing, like in chronic pain, it may cause severe damage to the health.

The human body needs adequate rest and pain-free periods to revive and rejuvenate. However, trouble may ensue if it is not getting those essential pain-free hours. Quite often, it is challenging to treat underlying health conditions causing pain. Nonetheless, providing symptomatic relief is possible with the right kind of treatment. In addition, this can give the body a much-needed time to rejuvenate and revitalize.

Calcium Complications

Complications like osteoporosis, arthritis, and poor dental health, are more common among individuals living with chronic pain. However, till now, doctors did not realize that these issues may be due to chronic pain. New studies suggest that chronic pain causes more severe endocrinal changes than assumed earlier, thus leading to much graver changes in the body.

Chronic pain is like an alarm that never shuts off, and thus body keeps releasing stress hormones like adrenalin, cortisol, and insulin (called big 3s). These hormones are pretty good at helping the body in times of emergency. They provide increased energy, help lower inflammation, and boost regenerative processes.

However, if these stress hormones remain continuously elevated, the body cannot cope. The body does not have infinite reserves. Over time, stress hormones like cortisol cause a decline in calcium levels in the body, causing dental health issues, joint disorders, and spine health problems.

Many living with chronic pain may develop severe osteoporosis resulting in fragile bones, which become highly prone to fractures, and other issues. These people are at an increased risk of low back pain, arthritis, and more.

However, things do not stop here, as high cortisol causes a decline in testosterone and estradiol levels. The decline in sex hormone levels may further cause havoc, causing poor health, mood issues, decreased sexual desire, anxiety, and more.

High cortisol means higher glucose, which causes an increase in insulin level, ultimately leading to insulin resistance or diabetes. It also causes a decline in vitamin D levels, low magnesium, and more.

So as one can see that chronic and poorly treated pain can initiate severe stress responses leading to multiple complications. Here it is vital to understand how all body functions are interrelated.

Therefore, experts suggest that doctors must carry out more extensive testing of patients living with chronic pain. In addition, doctors should not only focus on treating chronic pain but also its complications. Hence, doctors would need to test endocrine function, bone health, vitamin D levels, and more.

By Dr. Gurpreet Singh Padda, MD, MBA, MHP