Suicide and Chronic Pain: The Facts, Risk Factors, and Warning Signs

by Christina Lasich, MD Health Professional

The possibility of someone taking his/her own life is real. Every year, people commit suicide when least expected. Unfortunately, denial allows the warning signs to go unnoticed and the facts to be buried six feet under. When someone does commit suicide, a community, family or circle of friends is forced to face the reality that certain precautions might have saved a life. Eventually, after the initial shock wears off, the "what if's" and the "if only's" slowly begin to haunt the loved ones who were left behind with feelings of guilt, sorrow, and shame. And the lingering question remains: Could the death have been prevented? Looking at the statistics will show a pattern of risk, reveal warning signs to watch out for, and offer potential solutions.

Who is at most risk? Those with back pain or other forms of musculoskeletal pain are 14 times more likely to consider suicide than the general population. In fact, 19 percent of those individual with any chronic painful condition will think about suicide. Of those 5 percent will have a plan or have already attempted suicide. Interestingly, mental illness is not necessarily a prerequisite for suicide behavior especially when one is in pain. In other words, someone in pain may not display obvious signs of depression, psychosis or anxiety before taking his/her own life; although, depression is very common among those who contemplate suicide.

What methods are more likely? Men are more likely to use violent methods like hanging and shooting. Women are more likely to use poisoning. Both are likely to be under the influence of alcohol and display impulsive behavior. And analgesics are the most likely substances used in poisoning suicides. In fact, in a recent survey of those who had a suicide plan or recent attempt, 75 percent reported drug overdose as the method of choice.

All of these statistics are stark reminders that suicide can be a real risk lurking closer than may be recognized. Deep within these statistics are solutions. Solutions that can help to prevent suicide and avoid the "what if's" and "if only's" that come too late.

Risk Factors and Warning Signs for suicide to watch out for:

  • Chronic Pain

  • Family History of Suicide

  • Access to potentially lethal medications or other lethal means

  • Medication Hording

  • Depression for expressing feelings of hopelessness or helplessness or trapped

  • Increasing Alcohol or Drug Use

  • Erratic Behavior or dramatic mood changes

  • Withdrawing from friends, family and social network

  • Acting recklessly or engaging in risky behavior seemingly without thinking

  • Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge

  • Feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep or sleeping all the time

  • Seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose in life

  • Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person

  • Looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means

  • Threatening to hurt or kill oneself or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself

If you are having suicidal thoughts or know someone who is suicidal, do:

Call an available hotline number like:

  • The Boys and Girls Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000* 1-800-273-TALK* 1-800-SUICIDE

Find professional help by:

Limit access to lethal means by:

  • Keeping all firearms locked in a safe with a trigger lock in place* Keeping ammunition stored and locked in a separate location from the firearms* Keeping lethal doses of medications like acetaminophen and prescription painkillers under lock and key* Limiting the quantity on hand and the access to alcohol in the home

Suicide does happen and can happen when least expected. Everyone should know the facts, the risk factors and the warning signs because suicide is preventable even when someone feels like he/she is down to one last breath.

Christina Lasich, MD
Meet Our Writer
Christina Lasich, MD

Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.