Migraine, Chronic Back Pain Tied to Suicide Risk
Hopelessness, disability may play a role in feelings of despair, study finds
WebMD News Archive
By Dennis Thompson
WEDNESDAY, May 22 (HealthDay News) -- People who endure chronic migraines or back pain are more likely to attempt suicide, whether or not they also suffer from depression or another psychiatric condition, according to a new study.
"Clinicians who are seeing patients with certain pain conditions should be aware they are at increased risk of suicide," said study co-author Mark Ilgen, of the Veterans Affairs Serious Mental Illness Treatment Resource and Evaluation Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"Although undoubtedly psychiatric factors are important, there might be aspects of the pain that in and of themselves increase a person's risk," Ilgen said. "There might be something about someone with significant pain that puts them at increased risk."
The wide-ranging study, published online May 22 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, involved more than 4.8 million people who received care from the U.S. Veterans Health Administration during fiscal year 2005. Researchers identified those suffering from chronic pain and tracked them for the next three years to see if any died from suicide.
The research team then looked for associations between suicide death -- the 10th most common cause of death in the United States -- and clinical diagnoses of chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis, back pain, migraines, neuropathy, headaches or tension headaches, fibromyalgia and psychogenic pain.
They found that all pain conditions except arthritis and neuropathy were associated with elevated suicide risk. But when they took into account the mental-health problems that chronic pain patients also had, the associations reduced for all but three types of chronic pain: back pain, migraines and psychogenic pain, which stems from psychological factors.
Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a retired Army colonel and psychiatrist living in Washington, D.C., said the study clearly reinforces the anecdotal link between pain and suicide.
"It makes sense that pain is a risk factor for suicide," she said. "Often, suicide has several different things going on, but pain can be the straw that breaks the camel's back in terms of a person's decision not to go on."
Therapists performing a suicide-risk evaluation should consider adding a question regarding pain to the standard questions aimed at suicidal thoughts and planning, she said.
"It's not a standard question: 'Are you in pain?'" Ritchie said. "I would ask, 'Are you in pain?,' or 'Is pain an issue for you?'"
Psychogenic pain increased people's risk of suicide the most, followed by migraines and back pain. Psychogenic pain is chronic pain caused or exacerbated by mental or emotional problems, and Ilgen said it is a rare and not well understood condition.
"We think that's not so much about psychogenic pain per se, but the fact that the pain itself is poorly understood and may be poorly managed," Ilgen said. "There's not a clear treatment plan for that type of pain. It's likely that patients with this type of pain may be frustrated with their care and more hopeless and more at risk for suicide."