A few months after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at age 17, Jon Hood of Phoenix, AZ, wandered through his home gathering medications—in an attempt to kill himself to escape the physical pain he was experiencing as a result of the disease. He swallowed a pile of pills with a glass of water. Hours later, he woke up disoriented, confused, and suffering from severe stomach cramps. "My mom heard me vomiting and took me to the hospital," says Hood.
He had begun feeling pain in his limbs at age 11. At 13, leg cramps kept him up all night. By 17, Hood had lost his vision, developed a limp, and could no longer play sports.
He went to a string of doctors, but none were able to pinpoint the cause of his symptoms. Many thought he was making them up. Although physical pain is becoming increasingly recognized as a symptom of MS, many people—including doctors—are unaware that it can be caused by the disease. Some research suggests that more than half of MS patients experience pain at some point during the course of the disease, and that nearly half experience chronic pain. MS has been associated with trigeminal (facial) pain, painful spasms, burning or shooting pain, and back pain.
Hood was finally diagnosed with MS following a series of imaging exams and lab tests that spanned a few weeks.
"The day I attempted suicide, I was with a group of friends at a gas station. I offered to run in and get some sodas. My friend said, 'Stay here; I'll run in real quick,'" says Hood, now 24. "I suddenly felt like I would always be treated differently." The statement reinforced his sense of hopelessness at the hands of an incurable and painful disease.
Hood's despair isn't unique. Reports show that 50 percent of chronic pain patients consider suicide to escape the unrelenting agony of their pain. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2006 found that relative to the general population, risk of death by suicide appears to be at least doubled in chronic pain patients.
Despite these sobering statistics, there's reason for hope. Beyond the bevy of pharmaceutical options available to target pain and accompanying depression, a variety of self-help tools are available. First, however, the cause of the pain must be identified by a neurologist, as different pain conditions require different treatments.