Chronic pain syndrome is a difficult condition to live with, affecting everything from activity levels and ability to work, to personal relationships and emotional states. As well as this, chronic pain syndrome is also known to have a negative impact on the brain, affecting the way it works and functions. In this blog, we discuss exactly how chronic pain affects the brain and what this means for sufferers.
Chronic pain has a profound effect on the brain. Our brain is the hub of our nervous system, made up of 100 billion nerve cells. We rely on it to process what we are experiencing and help us react accordingly. However, when acute pain shifts to chronic pain, it can cause marked changes in brain activity and the way the brain works.
This means that untreated or undertreated pain exposes chronic pain sufferers to more than just intensifying levels of discomfort. It can also cause damage to the brain, while having an affect on a person’s mental abilities.
The challenge of developing treatments for chronic pain syndrome has led to considerable research on the brain’s role in the condition. Recent studies have discovered that the areas of the brain involved with processing acute pain differ to those that process chronic pain. In fact, multiple research studies have confirmed that chronic pain does not affect a singular region of the brain; instead, it results in changes to many areas. For example:
- Chronic pain shrinks the brain’s grey matter by as much as 11% a year. It is believed that chronic pain sufferers experience this shrinkage because the nerves involved in communication are continually firing, and this constant activity causes the brain to rewire itself as a form of protection.
- Chronic pain shrinks the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain regulates emotions, personality expression and social behaviour. Research shows that people with chronic pain have constant, excessive activity in the brain nerves within this area, which causes the neurons to die prematurely. Fear, worry and anxiety tend to become more pronounced in people with chronic pain as the loss of prefrontal cortex causes inability to control these feelings.
- Chronic pain causes the thalamus to remain open. The thalamus – often described as ‘the border of the brain’ – acts as a gateway between the spinal cord and higher brain centres. When you sustain an acute injury, the thalamus opens to pass information from the affected parts of the body to the brain. When the injury is healed, this border closes once again. In people with chronic pain syndrome, the thalamus remains open and every nerve signal that crosses it gets intensified, resulting in heightened pain.
- Chronic pain leads to a smaller hippocampus. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that helps to regulate emotional responses and is associated with learning and memory processing. People with chronic pain syndrome show a decreased volume in this part of the brain, which can lead to increased anxiety as well as learning and memory problems.
The more positive news is that, while the effect of chronic pain syndrome on the brain may seem overwhelming, research indicates that brain changes are not necessarily permanent and are reversible when patients receive appropriate treatment. The key is to receive effective treatment for chronic pain as early as possible to avoid brain changes in the first place.
*While the team here at Brian Barr are experienced in claiming compensation for those who suffer from chronic pain syndrome as a result of an accident, it is important to remember that we are not medical experts, which is why we recommend discussing everything from symptoms to treatments with your doctor.