Orthopedic Injuries and Mental Health: What’s the Connection?

Summit physical therapist Joe Herdzina, PT, DPT, OCS, SCS, explores the connection between orthopedic injury and mental health struggles like depression and anxiety.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Although you may not think that mental health challenges like depression and anxiety are connected with orthopedics, for many people, the two are interlinked. At times, orthopedic issues can certainly cause these problems due to limited mobility, limited social interaction, inappropriate education, and outsized expectations for healing. Read on to learn about the connection between orthopedic problems and mental health struggles.

There is a significant connection between reduced mobility, chronic pain, and mental health challenges like depression. “The simplest way to think about the connection among these is that they all start in the brain,” said Summit physical therapist Joe Herdzina, PT, DPT, OCS, SCS. “People who have decreased mobility as a result of injury have an increased risk of developing a depressed mood. They also may be missing out on the hormone boost that active movement and exercise can provide. It’s a vicious cycle of negative thoughts, which feed on each other and increase the difficulty of starting to move again.”

In addition, 30 to 50 percent of people with chronic pain also have depression and anxiety. So if you are dealing with orthopedic injuries, surgeries, or conditions that are causing chronic pain, what can you do to avoid mental health challenges as well? Here are some tips.

Tip 1: Take a holistic approach

 When your physical pain and orthopedic symptoms are affecting your mood, it can be helpful to try things like mindfulness exercises and meditation. Both of these can reduce pain and boost mood. To get started, there are many great YouTube videos, smartphone apps, and other free or low‐cost resources. Another idea is to listen to music that gives you enjoyment — anything that can provide a mood boost.

Tip 2: Get moving to improve orthopedic symptoms and boost mental health

It may seem counterintuitive to recommend movement and exercise to a person struggling with limited movement ability and pain. But it can really help. Studies show that even walking 6,000 steps a day can reduce joint pain in as little as six weeks for arthritis sufferers.

You don’t have to start a complex new workout regimen. Instead, start small. A simple walk around your neighborhood is a great first step.

“The first step is always the hardest,” Herdzina said. “But the benefits are real, and they’re significant.”

Tip 3: Get support

Use your peer group — friends, family, associates — to help you break the cycle of reduced mobility, pain, and mental health challenges. It can also be helpful to take a team approach, combating the problem from many angles. For example, some people, Herdzina said, could benefit from working with a physical therapist, a pain specialist, and a mental health therapist.

“Working with a team can help you put together a plan to help you feel better, with concrete steps to take,” Herdzina said.

Tip 4: Be kind to yourself for good orthopedic and mental health

Practicing self‐compassion is an important way to break the grip of depression and anxiety caused by pain. There are a variety of stress‐reduction therapies that can give you the mental clarity and energy you need.

Finally, in some cases, your doctor may recommend medication to deal with symptoms of depression or anxiety. Don’t be afraid to get help. It may be worth it to help you feel better after an injury or surgery.