Chronic pain’s effect on the brain

We see it all the time – chronic pain patients suffering from more than just pain. They are depressed, have trouble concentrating and struggle to remain positive in their pain. Current research shows why – chronic pain has an adverse effect on the brain, but it can be reversed with pain relief.

“Treating chronic pain can restore normal brain function in humans.”

This statement is the conclusion of an interesting study just released in the Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal studied 18 people that had been suffering for six or more months from chronic low back pain. When compared to people with no chronic pain, they found that these people had decreased brain gray matter and impaired cognitive ability. Using an MRI, researchers observed thinner tissue and abnormal brain activity while subjects performed a cognitive attention-requiring task. In other words, chronic pain affected areas of the brain that deal with depression and impaired concentration, memory, mood, and social judgment.

Pain Relief and the Brain

Now here’s the interesting part: when the pain was relieved there was a reverse in the deterioration of the brain – the area of the brain (known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) was no longer thinner than the control group. Additionally, there was no abnormal activity observed by MRI when the chronic pain patients performed a cognitive task. In the three people that reported no pain relief from treatment, there was no regeneration of gray matter. This study suggests that chronic pain takes a toll on the brain, but with relief it can regenerate itself.

Effective Chronic Pain Treatment

Each subject in the study chose to have back surgery or facet joint injections for pain relief and were reexamined six months after treatment. Unfortunately we don’t believe that surgery and facet joint injections (involving cortisone) are effective treatments because they don’t always reach the root cause of the problem. For more information on surgery for chronic pain see our previous post.

As for cortisone injections, they can do more harm than good and tend to have an adverse effect on bone and soft tissue healing. They limit the amount of calcium taken in by bone, thereby weakening the fibro-osseous junction that is usually the root cause of the pain. They also inhibit the release of growth hormone that is used to heal injuries; they inhibit the synthesis of proteins and collagen and have an overall weakening effect on joints.

The most effective way to treat chronic pain is through Prolotherapy. Prolotherapy stimulates the body to repair painful injured areas when the body’s natural healing process is not able to do the job on its own. Just as the brain is able to regenerate itself, injured joints can regenerate collagen and soft tissue through an inflammatory process. Prolotherapy is able to induce an inflammatory process to lead to healing, pain relief and ultimately better mental clarity, moods and more.