Loneliness Can Be A Pain, Literally
Loneliness can be detrimental to health, that according to a recent paper by Allen and colleagues published in the November 2020 issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Research. Loneliness increases the likelihood of experiencing both acute pain and chronic pain.
The study is the first of its kind examining the association between loneliness, social exclusion, and pain in the general population. Previous research suggests loneliness is associated with various medical and psychological conditions, like anxiety, depression, obesity, insomnia, heart disease, stroke, lung disease, and pain.
Data from UK Biobank’s large population-based investigation – 502,528 participants age 40 to 69 between 2006 and 2010 – looked at loneliness measured simply with one question, “Do you feel lonely?”
The research assessed social exclusion using four factors: inadequate social participation, material deprivation (e.g., low income), lack of access to social rights (i.e. inability to exercise one’s rights), and lack of normative integration (i.e. not complying with core societal values). The results showed that lonely individuals and those suffering from acute pain and chronic pain, when compared to non-affected people, scored significantly higher on measures of social exclusion. In addition, acute pain, chronic pain, and loneliness were associated with increased sleep problems.
More importantly, loneliness predicted acute pain and chronic pain. Loneliness was “significantly associated with an almost two-fold increased prevalence of both acute pain and chronic pain.”
The results showed that social exclusion was a significant predictor of both acute and chronic pain. And more than half of chronic pain patients struggle with insomnia, anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems.
The relationship between pain and loneliness is complicated, even from a biological perspective, since physical pain and psychological pain (e.g., pain caused by rejection) share some of the same brain circuits. Perhaps that is why rejection can hurt physically.
These findings have important implications for the treatment of pain and the prevention or management of disability. Specifically, while painkillers and therapy can be helpful for pain conditions, social factors need to be considered as well. Referrals to community support, helping people improve their quality of life, and removing environmental and societal barriers – i.e. discrimination and bullying – to full participation in society may actually reduce pain.
How Loneliness Increases Pain
By Arash Emamzadeh