The Complex Relationship Between Chronic Pain and ADHD

Demi Aspey
5mins read
Feb 5, 2024

A Deep Dive into a Not-So-Obvious Connection

Alright, folks, it’s time for another ADHD journey - this time, into the curious world where chronic pain and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) meet. 

You’re probably thinking, can we catch a break already?

Our ADHD is a bit like exploring a hidden cave – lots of fascinating and unique crevices to explore, but also one or two dark corners we’d rather avoid without a torch.

So, allow me to be your torn!

Back always aching, constant headaches, mysterious stomach aches that always pick the worst moment to flare into action?

I’ve got answers for you, or at least light that can point you in the right direction if you’ve been a long-term sufferer.

Buckle up (or have a well-deserved laydown)! 

Understanding the Connection Between Chronic Pain and ADHD

So, let’s paint a lil’ picture:

You're an individual with ADHD, right? 

The daily struggle of focus, distractability, productivity, and hyperactivity is REAL.

Now, imagine your body's pain dial turned up a notch (or ten). 

A study in 2023 dropped a bombshell – people with ADHD often feel pain more intensely. The study found a higher prevalence of chronic pain in younger ADHDers. From this, they have deduced there is a suggested association between chronic pain and ADHD. 

The data unveiled that the comorbidity of both conditions is significantly ABOVE the average population prevalence. Research is still thin, so it’s not a cold hard fact, but we’re seeing more research that is unpacking the depths of ADHD and other associated health conditions.

What do they mean by chronic pain and ADHD?

Think migraines, fibromyalgia, and the whole shebang. It's not just about feeling more pain; it's also about the ADHD brain getting stuck on the 'pain channel' and struggling to switch it off.

Another study also explores how this chronic pain can increase our impulsivity levels (as if we needed another reason) as well as cognitive and attention functions. 

Don’t worry; the study also explains that animals are similarly affected by their experience of chronic pain, which probably explains why my cat and I enjoy being balled up in a dark room and left alone. 

Exploring the Causes of the ADHD and Chronic Pain Connection

Why does this happen? 

We've got theories involving brain inflammation, pain perception going haywire, our sensory systems on overdrive, and a dopamine party that's not going as planned. Each of these plays a part in the grand mystery of ADHD and chronic pain.

Unsurprisingly (but somehow surprisingly), our focus has something to do with it. One common misconception of ADHD is our lack of focus when, in actuality, we have an intense ability to focus on the things that hold our attention.

Pain has a grand old way of making us very aware that it’s present, and when we become aware of it, we hyperfocus on it a tad too much.

Usually, distraction is a good pain medicine, but given pain’s ability, it affects our cognitive ability. For ADHDers, try as we might; we find ourselves trapped by ruminating over our pain, unable to focus on anything else.

If you have chronic pain but not the ADHD type, you’re probably familiar with these symptoms:

  • Distractability 
  • Lack of focus
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Being unable to finish tasks
  • Exhaustion from lack of sleep

Yup, those are all the symptoms of ADHD, which is why, for ADHDers, the experience of pain can be harder to bear - everything is just that bit more intense!

Our starting position is already different than neurotypicals, and we’re more susceptible to co-morbid conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other mental health difficulties. All of which bring their versions of pain to tackle.

The Importance of Understanding This Connection

Why should we care about all this?

Knowing how ADHD and chronic pain are linked is crucial for developing treatments and improving the quality of life for those caught in this complex dance.

Dopamine's Influence on ADHD and Chronic Pain

Let's talk about dopamine – the brain's VIP for drive, reward & motivation, time perception, attention, movement, short-term memory, and sleep (among others).

Dopamine and ADHD go hand-in-hand and we love it. But can we get enough of it?

Nope. At least, not as naturally as neurotypical brains can.

Dopamine also moonlights in the pain department.

A 2021 study whispered that when the dopamine system in ADHD folks goes a bit off-kilter, it might crank up pain sensitivity. Here’s what it had to report:

“Pathophysiological studies have suggested dysfunction of the dopaminergic system as a common neurochemical basis for comorbid ADHD and pain. Considerable evidence supports the role of neuroinflammation in the pathophysiology of both. We suggest that central neuroinflammation underlies altered pain perception and pain sensitization in persons with ADHD."

Article: Neuroinflammation as a possible link between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and pain

The Neuroinflammation Hypothesis

Enter the neuroinflammation hypothesis, the new kid on the block. 

This idea suggests that inflammation in the brain could explain the link between ADHD and chronic pain. This neuroinflammation can underlain altered pain perception and pain sensitivity in people with ADHD. 

It's not set in stone yet, but it's a hot topic getting science brains buzzing.

The good news is that the science brainiacs have some suggestions on how to address chronic pain if inflammation is the cause:

Based on our hypothesis, targeting neuroinflammation may serve as a potential new therapeutic intervention to treat ADHD and comorbid pain in children and adolescents and a preventive strategy for the development of chronic pain in adults with ADHD.

Article: Neuroinflammation as a possible link between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and pain

Body Doubling as a Management Tool for ADHD 

Now, let's talk about a nifty trick in the ADHD toolkit – body doubling

Imagine having a study buddy or a work wingman/person but for everyday tasks. That's body doubling. 

It’s like having an accountability partner to gently nudge your brain into 'get stuff done' mode.

It's especially handy when pain distracts you or makes it hard to focus.

Someone else's presence can help anchor your attention and keep pain from taking the driver’s seat.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Does ADHD Directly Cause Chronic Pain? 

No, ADHD isn't the direct villain here, but it's like an accomplice, making individuals more vulnerable to chronic pain.

Is There a Specific Link Between ADHD and Back Pain? 

The evidence for an exclusive ADHD-back pain bromance is a bit thin. But, the overall heightened pain sensitivity in ADHD might make back pain feel like a bigger bully.

What Constitutes the Link Between Chronic Pain and ADHD?

Imagine a cocktail of increased pain sensitivity, an attention span that's not playing ball, and potential biological shenanigans like dopamine drama and brain inflammation.

Navigating the murky waters where chronic pain and ADHD intersect isn't just about spotting symptoms.

 It's about unravelling a biological riddle, piecing together how our bodies and brains tick and what that means for treating and living with these conditions. 

As we keep unearthing new info, staying informed and alert is vital for everyone – from those living this reality to the healthcare wizards trying to make sense of it. 

Here's to uncovering more pieces of the fascinating puzzle we call our brains!

Sources & References

  1. Battison E., Brown P., Holley A., Wilson A.; (2023) Associations between Chronic Pain and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Youth: A Scoping Review
  2. Kerekes N., Sanchez-Perez A., Landry M.; (2021) Neuroinflammation as a possible link between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and pain
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Demi Aspey
Demi is the founder of the creative agency, Sonder Script, a culture columnist for House of Coco magazine, a part-time lecturer, and a soon-to-be Doctor in screenwriting. She is a scriptwriter by speciality and a copywriting cultivator by trade. Demi is a mental health advocate and was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult.