Chronic Pain Makes Brain Thinner, Effects Reversible

Robyn Nazar RN BSN's picture
chronic pain brain
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A new strange, but true, study study suggest that people who suffer from chronic low-back pain have thinner and fewer brain cells than those who do not.

The good new is, says study researchers, some of this damage can be reversed.

According to the study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, just six months after treatment of the chronic pain study participants brains showed fewer signs of abnormalities associated with chronic pain.

Pain and the Brain

Pain occurs where there is an initial injury to which your body sends pain signals along the nerves to the brain. However, in the case of chronic pain these pain signals do not subside after the injury goes away and pain signals continue to fire for months or even years. Chronic pain can cause depression along with cognitive impairments such as lack of of memory, concentration and judgment.

In order to better understand the effects of chronic pain on the brain neuroscientist Laura Stone from McGill University used brain scans and cognitive tests to evaluate persons who had been suffering chronic low-back pain (who make up the largest portion of chronic pain sufferers) for at least one year. Evaluation were done before and after treatment of chronic pain and compared to the results from a control group of healthy individuals not experiencing pain.

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The chronic pain participants were found to have brains that were thinner and and had fewer cells in six different regions of the brain that control judgment, attention, reasoning, mood, pain signals, and perceptions of other people. However, after six months of chronic pain treatment (surgery or analgesic injections), one of these damaged regions appeared to have regenerated. This region, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex controls mood, social judgment, short-term memory, higher-order thinking.

Furthermore, not only was physical structures of the brain recovered, but the functionality of the brain. “After the subjects were treated, researchers found increased cortical thickness in specific areas of the brain that were related to both pain reduction and physical disability,” said a statement released by McGill University. “And the abnormal brain activity observed initially during an attention-demanding cognitive task was found to have normalized after treatment.”

The subjects who reported no improvement or worse low-back pain after treatment showed no signs of brain regeneration at all.

According to spine and pain specialist Dr. Hector Lopez from a pain management clinic in Jackson NJ, treatments for low-back pain can include spinal procedures, injection therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, massage, acupuncture and even nutritional therapy.

No matter how the patient is treated, the experts on the study conclude, "Our results imply that treating chronic back pain can restore normal brain function."

Resources:
Image from Morgue File
Journal of Neuroscience
Nutrition for Pain Relief: Better Healing, Less Chronic Pain"

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