Let’s take a deeper look at the brain’s role in dealing with chronic pain, and how that affects treatment options for ongoing pain.
The difference between acute pain and chronic pain
Acute pain: The affected region eventually heals and the discomfort goes away. This cause-effect-resolution process is simple for the brain to understand and process.
Chronic pain: Where the cause goes unresolved and the site of the injury is not healed, the pain cycle can become self-perpetuating. Over time, the signals that indicate pain reverberate into other, more high-functioning areas of the brain as well as throughout the nervous system. One study found connectivity differences in brain regions important for mood and cognitive function between those with chronic low back pain and those without.
As a result of all these factors, not only can the original source of pain be disguised, but it also often creates a messy cycle of anxiety causing more pain causing more anxiety, and so on. This is one of the main reasons why chronic pain can be difficult to diagnose and treat.
Finding how to manipulate the mind to ease chronic pain is a growing research field, not only because of the increasing number of sufferers, but also because we are finding out that pain-relieving drugs may only be part of the solution.
A study in the Journal of Neuroscience looked at the brain scans of research participants who were taught how to meditate. When subjected to painful stimuli, they had less activity in the part of the brain that registers pain and more activity in the region that handles unpleasant feelings, suggesting they were in greater control of their pain response when meditating.
Cognitive therapy that teaches patients how to be more in control of their emotional response to chronic pain also seems to be promising. A study found that 30 percent of participants, all who suffered from fibromyalgia, reported less pain after six months of therapy compared to 8 percent of those getting conventional treatments. Interestingly, 37 percent of those who received both cognitive therapy and exercise reported less pain.
Of course, there is no “one size fits all” approach for managing chronic pain, nor are mind-body approaches are in any way superior to drugs or other forms of treatment. There are many cases where drug therapy is the best course of action. However, the brain plays a vital role in how we perceive and manage pain.
For more information on pain management, contact Comprehensive Pain Management in Warwick, RI.