Chronic pain actually changes your brain but you can reverse these changes. Let’s review the nerve changes caused by pain and what you can do to stop it.
Pain is caused and perpetuated through release of chemical toxins, activation of pain nerves and strong influences on emotional and cognitive reactions. It is caused by a cascade of chemical signals secreted by our cells as a signal that our tissue is injured or at risk of injury. These chemical messengers activate pain nerves that make various nerve connections up the spinal cord, to the brain stem and finally to deep brain pain structure that serves as a sensory relay station. Nerve connections carrying pain information travel yet further to the brain cortex. These pain messages travel via nerve connections that finally reach the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex where pain signals are registered and interpreted. At the highest level, the frontal lobes serve to further measure, analyze and interpret pain in the following ways:
- Cognitive- analyze the kind of pain, cause of pain and threat that defines a level of pain and increase vigilance to avoid future pain
- Emotional- responsible for attaching the emotional significance such as the amount of distress or fear that a given level of pain is given and retreat from painful siturations
With this information in hand, nerve signals then connect the frontal lobes to sensory and motor portions of the cortex allowing us to react for example by pulling our hand away from the source of pain or running from the cause of pain – or maybe simply tensing muscles in reaction to pain. Messages to the auditory and visual portions of the brain along with increase vigilance from the cognitive areas of the brain allow us to heighten all of our senses to register and feel current pain and react before pain causes further damage.
This hyper-vigilance and protective reaction to pain is very helpful for short-term and acute pain, but what happens when pain is chronic with not end in sight? Brain activity can escalate through feedback connections, in a snow ball fashion, further increasing pain severity, emotional distress eventually causing many body changes such as:
- More muscle tension and spasm
- Increase in emotional distress, fatigue, insomnia and depression
- Distractibility and difficulty with concentration
- Rapid breathing, high blood pressure and pulse rate and increase in the stress response
- Increase tissue swelling and inflammation
What is the result? Everything hurts more.
What can you do? Pain medicines block chemical pain messengers that cause inflammation, block overactive neurotransmitters and reduce nerve activity in key brain pain centers. But you can do more.
Fortunately the pain pathways and nerve connections provide multiple opportunities for intervention. Your lifestyle habits and endeavors can block the cascade of toxic chemicals and block pain induced nerve activity throughout the nervous system.
You CAN do more to reduce pain or stop pain in its tracks.
- Use physical activity to reduce pain by increasing pain fighting endorphins and reduce muscle, join stress or tension
- Practice mind-body medicine to change how you respond to pain emotionally, cognitively and physiologically
- Eat foods know to reduce tissue inflammation.
- Reduce life stress when possible
We will review each of these topics on future blogs so be sure to check back for practical information for a pain-free life.
- Check out the Arthritis Foundation and National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association for more treatment and lifestyle recommendations