Study suggests pain could be risk factor for suicide

Published: Sep. 10, 2018 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Tom Norris has lived with chronic pain for 30 years. Radiation during cancer treatment left him with constant pain in his leg, hip and spine, making even short walks very difficult.

"There's really nothing they can do to quote 'make me well.' So, all I can do now is just deal with it," Norris said.

More than 25 million adults are living with pain in the U.S.

"We do know people with pain are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety to overuse or misuse substances," said Dr. Mark Ilgen, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. "It's particularly important to ask about suicide and do a risk assessment to understand if anything can be done to keep them safe and prevent suicide."

The study looked at people who died by suicide in 18 states and found nearly 9 percent had documented chronic pain and 51 percent had opioids in their system when they died.

Pain management specialist Dr. Joseph Tu, of Cedars-Sinai Medical Group, says it's important to talk to patients about the mental effects of their pain.

"Part of pain management is giving them strategies, alternative tools or different modalities to live with their condition," Tu said.

Norris used a prescribed opioid medication for nearly a decade to manage his pain. But now he relies on other alternatives, including epidural treatments. He also leads support groups to help others like him.

"I've asked who has thought of suicide somewhere in their journey, and all of us raised our hands," Norris said.

He says the battle to manage pain is as much a mental fight as it is physical.