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Depression: Recognizing the Physical Symptoms

Most of us know about the emotional symptoms of depression. But you may not know that depression can be associated with many physical symptoms, too.

In fact, many people with depression suffer from chronic pain or other physical symptoms. These include:

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  • Headaches. These are fairly common in people with depression. If you already had migraine headaches, they may seem worse if you're depressed.
  • Back pain. If you already suffer with back pain, it may be worse if you become depressed.
  • Muscle aches and joint pain. Depression can make any kind of chronic pain worse.
  • Chest pain. Obviously, it's very important to get chest pain checked out by an expert right away. It can be a sign of serious heart, stomach, lung or other problems. But depression can contribute to the discomfort associated with chest pain.
  • Digestive problems. You might feel queasy or nauseated. You might have diarrhea or become chronically constipated.
  • Exhaustion and fatigue. No matter how much you sleep, you may still feel tired or worn out. Getting out of the bed in the morning may seem very hard, even impossible.
  • Sleeping problems. Many people with depression can't sleep well anymore. They wake up too early or can't fall asleep when they go to bed. Others sleep much more than normal.
  • Change in appetite or weight. Some people with depression lose their appetite and lose weight. Others find they crave certain foods -- like carbohydrates -- and weigh more.
  • Dizzinessor lightheadedness.

Because these symptoms occur with many conditions, many depressed people never get help, because they don't know that their physical symptoms might be caused by depression. A lot of doctors miss the symptoms, too.

These physical symptoms aren't "all in your head." Depression can cause real changes in your body. For instance, it can slow down your digestion, which can result in stomach problems.

Depression seems to be related to dysregulation of nerve cell networks or pathways that connect brain areas that process emotional information.  Some of these networks also process information related to how the body senses physical pain.  So many experts think that depression can make you feel pain differently than other people. Medicines that treat depression "tweak" the chemicals involved in how these nerve cell networks communicate, making them work more efficiently.

Treating Physical Symptoms

In some cases, treating your depression -- with therapy or medicine or both -- will resolve your physical symptoms.

But make sure to tell your health care provider about any physical symptoms. Don't assume they'll go away on their own. They may need additional treatment. For instance, your doctor may suggest an antianxiety or sleep aid medicine if you have insomnia. Those drugs help you relax and may allow you to sleep better.

Since pain and depression can sometimes go together, easing your pain may help with your depression. Some antidepressants, such as Cymbalta,  Effexor, and older tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil or Norpramin, may help with chronic pain, too.

Other treatments can also help with painful symptoms. Certain types of focused therapy -- like cognitive behavioral -- can teach you ways to cope better with the pain.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on November 10, 2013

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