Chronic Pain and the Brain

Last week we brought you news that the costs of treating neck and back pain had gone through the roof in the last several years but patients were actually getting less relief. As many of you wrote, the constantly lingering pain is enough to encourage patients to give multiple therapies a try. And research out of Northwestern University supports this strong motivation.

Using functional MRI, researchers compared the brain activity of those suffering from chronic back pain with that of a control group.

In those with no pain, the brain regions displayed a state of equilibrium. When one region was active, the other regions calmed down. But in people with chronic pain, the front region of the cortex mostly associated with emotion “never shuts up,” study author Dante Chialvo, an associate research professor of physiology, said in a prepared statement. This region remains highly active, which wears out neurons and alters their connections to each other. This constant firing of neurons could cause permanent damage.

via Live Science

According to researchers, chronic pain increased the risk for depression, anxiety, and sleep troubles. Chronic pain can also impede sufferers’ ability to make decisions.

As this study demonstrates, it’s imperative that patients receive effective treatment and lifestyle change support that will address chronic pain issues. Conventional medicine offers a wide array of approaches from surgery to medication (you know our reservations about the overprescribing of this one) to physical therapy. Alternative routes include all of the forms of energy medicine as well as options like meditation and psychological models, such as the approach of Dr. John Sarno (thanks to Sasquatch for the tip).

Without going into the nitty gritty of the treatments themselves, we just want to say that the study underscores the intense connection between physical wellness and emotional (and even cognitive) well-being. Patients’ motivation to seek out therapies that will, in some way, make a positive difference is understandable and sensible. The health industry’s responsibility to offer up healthy, effective, open-minded and comprehensive treatment plans is critical.

Share your perspectives on chronic pain and/or the assortment of available therapies.

pabloest Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Natural Alternatives to OTC Painkillers

Scalpel or Sword: A Doctor’s Philosophy on Treating Pain

Mind Hacks: A Pain in the Neck, Mind, Brain and Society

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