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Suicidality in chronic pain: a review of the prevalence, risk factors and psychological links

  • DOI:
  • Published online: 18 January 2006

Background. This paper reviews and integrates the growing literature concerning the prevalence of and risk factors for suicidality in chronic pain.

Method. A series of systematic searches in MEDLINE and PsychINFO identified 12 relevant articles examining suicide, suicide attempts, and suicidal ideation in chronic pain. A selection of theoretical and empirical work identifying psychological processes that have been implicated in both the pain and suicide literature and which may be related to increased suicidality was also reviewed.

Results. Relative to controls, risk of death by suicide appeared to be at least doubled in chronic pain patients. The lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts was between 5% and 14% in individuals with chronic pain, with the prevalence of suicidal ideation being ~20%. Eight risk factors for suicidality in chronic pain were identified, including the type, intensity and duration of pain and sleep-onset insomnia co-occuring with pain, which appeared to be pain-specific. Helplessness and hopelessness about pain, the desire for escape from pain, pain catastrophizing and avoidance, and problem-solving deficits were highlighted as psychological processes relevant to the understanding of suicidality in chronic pain.

Conclusions. Programmatic research is urgently required to investigate the role of both general and pain-specific risk factors for suicidality, to examine how the psychological processes mentioned above mediate or exacerbate suicidality, and to develop enhanced interventions for pain patients at risk.

Corresponding author
Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, De Crespigny Park, Denmark Hill, London SE5 8AF, UK. (Email:
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Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0033-2917
  • EISSN: 1469-8978
  • URL: /core/journals/psychological-medicine
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