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Chronic Pain and Your Brain

Chronic Pain and Your Brain

The day-to-day impact of chronic pain is familiar to many of us. More than 1 in 4 American adults is affected by chronic pain, navigating a world limited by Chronic pain affects more than 100 million adults in the US alone. Until recently, chronic pain has been understood as a physical phenomenon, one that limits what we can do in measurable ways. However, current research shows that chronic pain affects our bodies and our brains in unexpected ways.

People who live with chronic pain are more likely to experience cognitive and behavioral impairments

Anyone who has lived with chronic pain knows that the physical experience is only the half of it. Adults experiencing chronic pain are also more likely to experience cognitive and behavioral impairments like anxiety, depression, and issues around sleep or decision-making. This may be because chronic pain throws the brain out of equilibrium, as shown by a 2008 study that used fMRI imaging to better understand how chronic pain impacts brain function. When the brain isn’t able to function as it should, it becomes more vulnerable to other dysfunctions it would normally be able to correct.

Another explanation could be in the availability of key neurotransmitters linked to our emotions. A 2021 study compared the brains of people experiencing chronic pain to those with no history of it and found that those with chronic pain had significantly lower levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid and glutamate. These neurotransmitters are responsible for reducing activity in the central nervous system, which may be linked to creating a calm state of mind, and certain brain functions related to memory and cognition. Together, this indicates a chemical imbalance that could influence how we experience chronic pain, and how that experience damages our mental health.

Chronic pain is an emotional experience

Part of the reason that chronic pain has such a profound impact on our mental health is that our brains actually process it as an emotional pain, rather than a physical one. Brain patterns give neurologists insight into how our brains categorize and process different stimuli. In 2013, a study found that as pain shifts from specific to chronic, our brain patterns adapt to process that pain as emotional rather than physical. And like anything our brain repeats time after time, this consistent experience of pain impacts the way our brain itself is wired.

Chronic pain can have such a significant impact on your brain that it perpetuates itself

Much like chronic depression, chronic pain can become self-perpetuating, making it difficult to overcome and heal. Chronic pain impacts most areas of our lives, making it more difficult to enjoy our favorite activities, feel productive at work, and even get a good night’s sleep — things that are all key to our mental health as well. 

Understanding chronic pain as a product of the brain as much as the body opens up new ways to treat it

There’s no single secret trick to overcoming chronic pain. But it’s not all bad news: As we begin to understand chronic pain as a mental experience as well, it means that we can begin to treat it as we might any other cognitive impairment, like depression or anxiety. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation help center our minds and allow us to let go of the tension we hold in our bodies, and even diminish our awareness of pain. 

If you’re one of the millions of Americans living with chronic pain, factoring it into your mental wellness routine can help reduce its impact, and get you closer to healing.

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