Chronic painful conditions are uncomfortable episodes that last beyond an expected period of illness or injury. A person experiences faulty signals via the central nervous system that can last days, weeks, or months past an initial injury. Chronic painful conditions lead to a chronic stress reaction that increases both blood pressure and heart rate. This stressful reaction leads to harmful health effects, such as the reduced ability to fight off illness and infection. It can also increase the risk of development of certain conditions such as heart disease. Physical effects include:
- Tense muscles
- Inability to move about freely
- Lack of energy
- Changes in appetite
Emotional effects include:
- Fear of re-occurrence
Over one in five people suffers from chronic pain that interferes with quality of life, and the burden of this discomfort has long reaching implications. Although a number of drugs on the market can provide temporary relief, the side-effects, issues with tolerance, and rising rates of addiction are forcing scientists and doctors alike to look for alternatives to pain management.
How the brain thinks during chronic painful conditions
An instance of acute trauma can actually alter perception and anticipation of future discomfort; this psychosomatic thought process acts as self fulfilling prophecy as person grow to believe that this is the state they must live in. Emotional response, mood, and thinking are all affected as the patient struggles to either come to terms with their reality or seeks comfort and freedom from the condition. This challenge for developing management alternatives has led scientists to begin studying the brain and its role in processing pain for additional answers. What they are uncovering is a clear link to two areas of the brain that process this type of information—their thalamus and the prefrontal cortex.
The thalamus sits at the base of the brain and acts as a gateway between it and the spinal cord. Upon the onset of an injury or an occurrence of acute pain, this gateway remains open as the body attempts to process information and receive answers about healing and treatment in the most efficient way possible. If acute conditions become chronic, it is observed that this gateway remains open and makes the entire body and nervous system hypersensitive to stimulation, thereby exacerbating the problem.
How the prefrontal cortex and mood are affected
In people experiencing chronic conditions, the prefrontal cortex actually decreases in volume and its ability to function. This is the region of the brain that regulates mood and emotion—in its normal state, it regulates emotional responses appropriately, allows for personality expression and gives cues with regard to what expected social norms are. When chronic painful conditions are present, mood swings can cause issues in both personal and professional life. Due to ongoing discomfort, every emotion and cognition are greatly amplified. People with ongoing pain experience more fear and worry than those who are considered “healthy”, and the prefrontal cortex does not have the capacity to subdue these feelings and regulate mood. It is not uncommon for those who experience chronic painful conditions to entertain suicidal thoughts; between unpredictable mood swings, a hypersensitive central nervous system, and lack of validation from family and friends who cannot “see” their condition, it can sometimes be too much to bear. Because of ongoing trauma in the brain, the way that cells communicate with each other actually becomes damaged. Using a process of “re-writing” and neuro feedback, scientists are now working to change the way that cells talk to each other and rewrite painful memories.
Perception influences pain
Just as the brain becomes damaged through the experience of chronic painful conditions, it can also be reconditioned to perceive the experience of discomfort relatively easily, given the right stimuli. Quite often, people with chronic conditions have a faulty perception of both the size of their body parts and their perception of touch, indicating that there is a disconnect with location-specific information processing. There are now a series of clinical trials being done using virtual reality tools and verbal feedback from doctors that changes the way patients perceive their experience. Repeated conditioning and positive feedback have changed sensory perception and thus, the patient’s perception of their own body and of their condition. Treatments have now taken on a multi-sensory nature, and it is being proven quite effective at reducing and, in some cases, eliminating the experience of chronic pain altogether.
How to talk about chronic painful conditions
Quite often, those who experience chronic painful conditions share their discomfort with those around them. Partners who offer expressions of support and assistance will find that these behaviours will increase, while those who do not give support to this behavior will find that the relationship suffers when the affected person refuses to share their experience with them. Mood swings may grow increasingly more erratic and unpredictable, doing damage to the relationship. While it is important to know when a partner is experiencing discomfort, finding other things to discuss and other things to focus on will help to diffuse some of the potential for unhealthy behaviours to develop.
The light at the end of the tunnel
With innovative technologies, new information about nutrition, and groundbreaking studies being done on the effect of chronic painful conditions on the brain, we now have the tools and knowledge to provide relief, if not remission, for millions of people.
Invest in yourself, invest in your wellness, and seek support that brings you to that better place. Here’s to your best health!