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Chronic Pain Can Cause Long-Lasting Damage To Your Brain

Chronic Pain Can Cause Long-Lasting Damage To Your Brain

Chronic pain can damage and change your brain. If you live with chronic pain, you will know how devastating and wide-ranging the effects can be on your mental processing speed, your mood, and your memory.

Research with humans and mice, has revealed that chronic pain exerts measurable effects on the brain, and that these changes can last even once the pain has stopped. From this perspective, chronic pain isn’t just a troublesome day-to-day issue that affects many people worldwide. It is also a common cause of brain damage that can greatly increase the risk of anxiety, depression and cognitive dysfunction in those who suffer from it.

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How exactly does pain change the brain?

Researchers based at Northwestern University examined brain functioning in humans and mice living with chronic pain. First, they examined the differences in mental functioning in people living with and without chronic pain. Using brain scans, researchers discovered that those with long-term pain such as back pain (defined as greater than six months in duration) showed evidence of hippocampal shrinkage. This is significant, because the hippocampus is an area of gray matter within the brain responsible for learning and memory. It is shown highlighted in red on the image below:

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Hippocampus
    Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3c/MRI_Location_Hippocampus_up..png

    Pain ages the brain

    The researchers report that chronic pain, such as that seen in sciatica, can cause gray matter in the brain to shrink by up to 11% each year, compared to 0.5% seen in healthy humans. In other words, long-lasting pain greatly speeds up the usual ageing process. This in turn has a significant impact on a range of mental functions such as the ability to learn, to handle anxiety, and engage in appropriate emotion regulation.

    This in turn leaves sufferers at a heightened risk for emotional disturbances. Along with the hippocampus, another region of the brain negatively affected by chronic pain is the amygdala, shown highlighted on the image below. The amygdala is important for fear regulation, which may explain why those with decreased amygdala volume are more likely to suffer from anxiety.

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    brainlabelled
      Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ad/EQbrain_optical_stim_en.jpg

      The researchers also investigated the effects of pain on brain structures and processes, using animal studies. They discovered that compared with mice leading pain-free lives, the animals living with chronic pain had trouble with emotion-related memory tasks. They were also more anxious in general compared with the control mice. The brains of the affected mice struggled to grow new neuronal connections in the hippocampus.

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      Usually, both humans and rodents can form new connections in this area of the brain, which explains why we can continue to learn new knowledge and skills throughout our lives. However, when the hippocampus can no longer make these connections, as is the case in those with chronic pain, mental performance suffers.

      As pain continues, damage may worsen

      Why exactly does chronic pain result in gray matter shrinkage? It is possible that as chronic pain is ongoing, nerve cells in the brain are placed under an unusually high load. This means that they are less able to form new connections with other cells. As the chronic pain continues, it may become increasingly less responsive to conventional pain treatments due to alterations in these brain areas.

      Natural ways to tackle chronic pain

      Given that chronic pain can cause brain damage, it is important to get it under control as soon as possible. Along with conventional medicine, there are numerous ways by which you can reduce your pain levels naturally. Natural methods of pain reduction include acupuncture, massage, hypnosis, cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, and herbal remedies. Always remember to consult with your regular health practitioner before trying a new course of treatment.

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      Jay Hill

      Freelance Writer

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      Last Updated on December 13, 2018

      12 Practical Tips To Stay Fit For Christmas

      12 Practical Tips To Stay Fit For Christmas

      Christmas is approaching fast, and lots of people not only tend to ruin their usual diets, but they also gain a few extra pounds. Based on studies, the majority of people tend to gain additional weight during the holiday season that starts at the Thanksgiving Day and ends with the New Year celebrations. Excessive eating is claimed to be the main cause for the additional weight gain, but it is also due to lack of physical activity and exercise.

      A lot of individuals out there tend to set aside their fitness routines during the holidays since they believe that they do not have enough time to perform their workouts. And because they feel guilty after the holiday season, most of the gyms and fitness centers are packed with fresh members. Always bear in mind that you can still enjoy the holidays and stay fit at the same time. If you want to stay fit during the holiday season, especially during Christmas and the New Year’s Eve, here are some useful tips that might help you:

      1. Eat Before Heading Out

      First, it is best that you eat something before heading out to visits, trips or family dinners. By doing so, you will no longer be tempted to eat a lot or overindulge yourself since you have already eaten. Skipping on meals is not a good idea either, because you will only be forced to eat more later.

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      2. Select The Treats

      Make sure to select the treats that you eat in a wise manner. You should choose something that you can only enjoy during the holiday season and not something that is readily available all the time.

      3. Avoid Skipping Meals

      Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast! Even though it can be tempting to skip on certain meals, believing that it will make up for the treats you consumed in the previous day, don’t do it because it will only lead to counterproductive results.

      4. Drink With Moderation

      It is best to regulate your drinking since alcohol, coke or other juices will only add more calories to the ones you already eaten!

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      5. Be Active

      You should still perform your fitness routine whenever possible and if you can’t do that, simply walk more, park your car some distance away from the store or just use the stairs!

      6. Get Out Of The House

      Make the holidays a family affair and plan outdoor activities where everyone is involved. Even a snowball fight in the backyard will burn a lot of calories and will keep the children entertained.

      7. Don’t Skip Your Strength Workouts

      Always remember to perform your strength training in order to maintain that muscle mass you worked hard to get. You might be tempted to use lightweights and just do some cardio, but you can burn just as many calories by lifting weights. And with all of those extra stakes you had on the holiday meals, you might even gain some extra muscle. And this is much better than gaining some extra fat.

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      8. Set Realistic Goals

      You should set realistic exercise objectives. Aim for at least half an hour per day and you will be very happy when you will achieve that. If you plan one hour or more and not achieve it, you will only end up disappointed.

      9. Enjoy Yourself

      Also make sure to set realistic diet plans! Trying to restrain yourself totally from some foods will only make you eat more. Feel free to enjoy the treats that you really love, but in small portions.

      10. Drink A Lot Of Water

      This can satiate your appetite as well as keep you hydrated at all times. And it will also prevent a possible hangover if you overdo it with alcohol.

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      11. Eat Less And More Often

      Distribute your meals evenly throughout the day, and do not eat everything at once.  Instead of having 2 enormous meals, have 5 small ones.  Eat your dinner earlier and have a nice walk before going to bed.

      12. Prioritize Your Workouts

      Try to do them early in the morning while everyone else is still sleeping. This way you will also avoid remarks like “Oh, come on! It’s Christmas…”

      So there you go! Twelve simple tips that will help you avoid gaining weight during the winter holidays, but will also allow you to enjoy yourself and have a great time with your loved ones.

      Happy Holidays everyone!

      Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

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