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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8 thoughts on “Chronic Pain and the Brain”

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  1. A lot of Drs. have taken to prescribing Prozac and other SSRIs to chronic pain patients, as the pain often leads to depression.

  2. Hellzyeah do I see a link between chronic pain and emotional well being!!! My own chronic joint/back pain kicks in when I’m closing off my emotions and you know “acting like a Man”. Especially when I’m repressing positive and warm emotions.

    Pains much better than it used to be but its still there. No way would I take drugs for it, no offence to anyone who does.

    My wife noticed my tendancies first. It made me take a long hard “look in the mirror” and I’m the guy who swore I knew myself inside and out. Just realizing it decreased the pain, no kidding. My pain is almost gone now and I can workout and feel good.

    A bonus is I let myself have affection for my wife again now that I’m not repressing it.

    I don’t know about the Ladies, or is this a guy thing???

    1. It is not just a guy thing. I feel that I have to suppress my emotions, for a multitude of reasons. The primary reason is that it seems like my emotions are just too much for my husband. Especially when I’m sad. I have even felt suicidal and only said I was “feeling down”.

      I have been suffering from chronic pain since 1999 and it definitely gets worse when I’m stressed or sad. I don’t usually suppress happy emotions, but I do suppress the outbursts of joy that I’d like to have sometimes, because that is just not always socially acceptable. When I do that, it launches me into greater depression and more pain & muscle tension.

      …I’m considering changing my lifestyle. Hoping that carbs and sugar are the cause of some of this pain and it will decrease!

  3. My wife has suffered from chronic pain for years in the past year or so however it has taken a turn for the worse and now one laminectomy/detethering later things don’t seem to be getting better. She has been seeing a pain management doctor for the past 2 months after being rejected on more than one occasion by other pain management doctors because of her multiple conditions.

    She seems to be doing somewhat better than she has in the past and that is all we can ask.

  4. Chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, chronic pain anywhere could be linked to disorders of thyroid, adrenals, pituitary. I hear about it everyday. Allen, I know your pain.

  5. Hi. I read a few of your other posts and wanted to know if you would be interested in exchanging blogroll links?