Chronic Pain Harms The Brain — ScienceDaily — February 6, 2008
This article isn’t new and I’ve posted it before, but it’s a classic, providing scientific evidence of the damage done to our brains by uncontrolled chronic pain. We can use it to argue against the anti-opioid articles that claim addiction is much more serious than chronic pain.
Comparison of brains. These images show the brain from the left side, demonstrating striking differences between chronic pain patients and healthy subjects. They illustrate with colors how much activation (red-yellow) or deactivation (dark/light blue) was found at each location.
People with unrelenting pain don’t only suffer from the non-stop sensation of throbbing pain. They also have trouble sleeping, are often depressed, anxious and even have difficulty making simple decisions.
Researchers found that in a healthy brain all the regions exist in a state of equilibrium. When one region is active, the others quiet down.
But in people with chronic pain, a front region of the cortex mostly associated with emotion “never shuts up,” said Dante Chialvo, lead author and associate research professor of physiology at the Feinberg School. “The areas that are affected fail to deactivate when they should.”
They are stuck on full throttle, wearing out neurons and altering their connections to each other.
I use the metaphor of biological erosion: A relentless trickle of even moderate pain can eventually carve deep ruts into our nervous systems, making it that much easier for more pain signals to flow through, and eventually eroding
This is the first demonstration of brain disturbances in chronic pain patients not directly related to the sensation of pain.
Chialvo and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of people with chronic low back pain and a group of pain-free volunteers while both groups were tracking a moving bar on a computer screen.
The study showed the pain sufferers performed the task well but “at the expense of using their brain differently than the pain-free group,” Chialvo said.
When certain parts of the cortex were activated in the pain-free group, some others were deactivated, maintaining a cooperative equilibrium between the regions.
This equilibrium also is known as the resting state network of the brain.
In the chronic pain group, however, one of the nodes of this network did not quiet down as it did in the pain-free subjects.
This constant firing of neurons in these regions of the brain could cause permanent damage, Chialvo said. “We know when neurons fire too much they may change their connections with other neurons and or even die because they can’t sustain high activity for so long,” he explained.
‘If you are a chronic pain patient, you have pain 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every minute of your life,” Chialvo said.
“That permanent perception of pain in your brain makes these areas in your brain continuously active. This continuous dysfunction in the equilibrium of the brain can change the wiring forever and could hurt the brain.”
Chialvo hypothesized the subsequent changes in wiring “may make it harder for you to make a decision or be in a good mood to get up in the morning.
It could be that pain produces depression and the other reported abnormalities because it disturbs the balance of the brain as a whole.“
To me, it seems that pain disturbs the whole of my brain and by extension, the whole of my life.
Having so much of my awareness assailed by constant pain signals makes it difficult to think coherent thoughts, just like it is hard to think straight when you’re subjected to constant loud noise.
Additionally, the endless barrage of biochemicals released by our body’s handling of the pain alters our whole body chemistry as well, just like a chronic trickle of water will eventually seep and spread into the surrounding soil until it’s flooded or slides downhill. That’s certainly what I feel is happening to me.
This is why it’s so important that we have access to opioids. For all but a few of us, opioid medications are the most effective shield we have to protect our brains from the assault of chronic pain.
He said his findings show it is essential to study new approaches to treat patients not just to control their pain but also to evaluate and prevent the dysfunction that may be generated in the brain by the chronic pain.
Use the tag “pain-damage“ to see more articles about the damage from ongoing pain.