The Damaging Effects of Chronic Pain on the Brain

May 19, 2011 |

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How Does Chronic Pain Change Behavior?

Now, it is one thing to talk about changes in the brain, but what most of us will find important is how brain changes affect behavior and personality. Previous research has found a number of changes in mental function caused by chronic pain. One example is that those suffering from chronic pain have difficulty making even simple decisions and interacting with other people.

This finding makes sense because of the over activity of those specific areas of the brain involved in processing pain. Essentially, because of the constant internal brain stimulation, a person in chronic pain is impaired in a similar manner to those who are trying to multitask. Too many things happening in the brain at once makes concentration difficult.

Chronic Pain And Sleep

Another common problem amongst people with chronic pain is an inability to sleep. Of course, any feeling of pain will certainly make it hard to sleep, but other brain changes also contribute to sleeplessness. In particular the area of the brain responsible for sensory stimulation is also responsible for controlling our wake and sleep cycle. When this area of the brain atrophies and shrinks, individuals have both difficulty sleeping and additional difficulties in maintaining alertness.

Chronic Pain And Anxiety

In addition to these symptoms, yet another symptom frequently experienced by those in chronic pain is anxiety. Based on research from the University of California, researchers observed that patients in chronic pain have reduced brain activity in the areas of the brain that control the human response to pain. The researchers believe that the reduced control over pain signals causes the brain in these individuals to become extremely vigilant in anticipating future pain. If this is true, it helps explain the heightened levels of anxiety frequently experienced by suffering from chronic pain.

Chronic Pain And Depression

The final symptom that has a significant effect on those suffering from enduring pain is depression. In the same study at the University of California, the research results led the investigators to believe that reduced pain control in the brain and the complex brain wiring changes causes increased emotional reaction to future experiences of pain and discomfort. They suggest that this explains why those with chronic pain are often resistant to treatment. Essentially, the changes in their brain contribute to a sense of hopelessness in being able to overcome the pain.


These results are important because they agree with other research that has found that people suffering from depression have reduced ability to control their emotional state. It also supports studies that have identified that 30 to 60% of patients with chronic pain also develop depression.

Undoing The Brain Changes When Chronic Pain Ends

While the news so far is certainly not positive for people suffering from chronic pain, recent research does have some positive news to offer. Researchers at McGill University found that chronic pain patients who were eventually treated for their pain were able to recover. They found that the brains of these individuals began to increase in mass to levels that were normal. The area of the brain responsible for controlling pain also repaired itself and began to operate normally. Lastly, the number of gray matter cells also increased.

Most importantly, mental abilities returned to normal levels with these patients being able to again perform tasks requiring mental focus.

Conclusions

Although we are largely familiar with the reductions in quality of life that accompany chronic pain, our understanding of the effects of pain on the brain has not been good. Chronic pain is debilitating both physically and mentally, causing damage to our brains and mental abilities. Many of the changes to the brain can subsequently make coping with the pain even more difficult. As a result, physicians need to make greater efforts in treating the chronic pain that patients experience. We now know that failing to do so becomes a failure to live up to the intent of the Hippocratic oath in “doing no harm”.

Related Links

http://www.getcited.org/pub/102693079
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus06.pdf
http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2008/02/chronicpain.html
http://archpsyc.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/65/11/1275
http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2008/11/chronicpain.html
http://www.rsna.org/rsna/media/pr2006-2/chronic_back_pain-2.cfm
http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2004/11/chronic.html
http://apkarianlab.northwestern.edu/publications/Papers/20100414_Baliki.pdf
http://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/news/item/?item_id=174398

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Category: General Health, Health Risks, Medical Research, Symptom Information

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