The Surprising Link Between ADHD and Chronic Pain

And Why it Matters

What are the most common co-morbid conditions for people with ADHD?

If your first thoughts were depression, OCD, anxiety, or learning disabilities, you’re on the right track. In fact, about half of people with ADHD also have at least one other condition, and these are just a few of the front-runners.

One co-morbidity you probably didn’t think of immediately is chronic pain–yet, studies estimate that around a quarter of chronic pain patients are also diagnosed with ADHD.

What’s the Connection?

This link has been studied for a long time. One of the most well-known symptoms of ADHD is difficulty with attention and focus. Research shows when people pay attention to something, they feel less pain – think about the way we try to distract children when they cry after a fall. If they’re paying attention to something else, they usually forget about the pain, at least for awhile.

We also know that when someone has chronic pain, their attention span suffers, and that people with ADHD feel more pain than those without ADHD.

Symptom-wise, there’s also a lot of overlap. Both ADHD and chronic pain can cause:

  • Distractibility
  • Sleep Issues
  • Difficulties sustaining or dividing attention
  • Difficulty finishing tasks
  • Inability to inhibit irrelevant stimuli
  • Emotional dysregulation

Unfortunately, what we don’t know yet is why ADHD and chronic pain are connected. At least, not with certainty.

One theory is neuroinflammation – that is, inflammation in the brain – because it’s seen in both people with ADHD, and in people with chronic pain. Other possibilities include reduced or insufficient dopamine transmission and differences in brain structure seen in both conditions.

Regardless, treatment for both ADHD and chronic pain is complex.

Current treatments for ADHD

  • Counseling/therapy for associated social, emotional, and other trauma
  • ADHD Coaching to support daily functioning and work/school success
  • Stimulant medication to support or improve brain function, and enable the success of therapy and/or coaching

Current Treatments for Chronic Pain

Chronic pain, on the other hand, has largely been “treated” by trying (and in many cases, failing) to alleviate the severity of symptoms. Some treatments include:

  • Counseling/therapy for associated social, emotional, and other trauma
  • Physical therapy
  • Chiropractic
  • Anti-depressant medication
  • Opioids and other pain medication (though, these are becoming more and more difficult for patients to access)
  • Alternative medicine such as massage, acupuncture, or marijuana, where legal

Why Does it Matter?

Figuring out how the two are connected could have huge implications for the treatment of both conditions. For example, if neuroinflammation is indeed causing or worsening symptoms, then eliminating or reducing inflammation could become a new treatment for people with ADHD and chronic pain.

Given that both chronic pain and ADHD share some common features, such as impulsivity, restlessness, and problems with focus and attention, it is not surprising that the two disorders often co-occur. When this happens, it creates a unique challenge for clinicians who must treat both conditions simultaneously. A comprehensive approach is needed to manage patients with overlapping symptoms. In order to optimize treatment outcomes, it is essential to understand the relationship between chronic pain and ADHD.

What is it Like to Have ADHD & Chronic Pain by Jessica McCabe

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