OCD and Physical Pain


by marin freedigitalphotos.net


Many people believe that physical pain and mental pain can be connected. I often hear from people with severe OCD who also suffer from debilitating physical pain. It’s not unusual, once their OCD is treated, for their physical symptoms to subside or even disappear completely.

Sometimes the pain those with OCD experience is directly related to compulsions they perform. For example, some people with OCD are compelled to perform extensive rituals while showering, perhaps twisting and turning in particular ways for a specific amount of time. This might lead to chronic back or neck pain. Repetition is common with compulsions and can lead to physical pain such as arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. I have heard of those who deal with trichotillomania experiencing relentless pain in their arms, wrists, hands and fingers. Also, turning doorknobs and tightening water faucets are other common compulsions in OCD that can lead to injury and physical pain.

In other cases, pain appears unrelated to the disorder. Headaches, intestinal issues, and fibromyalgia are just a few examples. Are they connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder? I don’t know, but I do know that having both physical pain and OCD can get quite complicated. For example, if someone has a severe headache, he or she would (hopefully) go to their doctor. The doctor might order a test, such as an MRI, which  would probably come back normal. The person’s headache subsides, and life returns to normal.

That’s if you don’t have OCD. If you do have OCD, you might feel reassured immediately after the results of the MRI, but then the obsessive thinking might kick in:

How can I be sure the test didn’t miss something?

I tripped the other day and have been more forgetful than usual. I must have a brain tumor.

Maybe the doctors got my test results mixed up with someone else’s?

As you can imagine, this list is endless. Compulsions to temporarily quell this anxiety might include going back to the doctor, asking a loved one for reassurance, or being hyperaware of every “symptom” you feel. All of these rituals only serve to make the OCD stronger.

Nothing is simple when it comes to OCD.

In an interesting study related to OCD and pain, researchers found that study participants with obsessive-compulsive disorder were actually unusually tolerant of physical pain, regardless of the nature or severity of their symptoms. The scientists believe these findings suggest that individuals who struggle with emotional pain are able to endure physical pain to a much greater extent than others. In a nutshell, it appears the physical pain distracts from the emotional pain. This finding can perhaps give us somewhat of an understanding of the role of self-injury in OCD.

Pain and obsessive-compulsive disorder appear to be connected in different ways. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, however, when OCD is properly treated, some symptoms of pain might diminish, or disappear completely. Another great reason to get proper treatment and fight OCD.

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4 Responses to OCD and Physical Pain

  1. Tsaheylu says:

    Excellent post. So very true.
    Pain, fibromyalgia or PTSD like symptoms can be present. I’ve also noticed that one can feel depressed while struggling with the effects of OCD or seasonal depression can amp the physical stuff alot.

    I also believe that working on the OCD can really lessen the symptoms very much. Seeing the connection between emotions and the body isn’t always clear. Like you said “physical pain can distract from emotional pain.” In this case some therapies don’t seem as effective.
    I found learning about “hidden emotions” to be helpful in this regard. Another tool to go with ERP…CBT etc.



    • Thanks for your comment and for your insight, Tsaheylu. I am not familiar with the hidden emotions technique and will read that article as soon as I can. Looks interesting. Thanks again for sharing!

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