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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

      Jay writes about communication and happiness on Lifehack.

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      Last Updated on September 18, 2020

      7 Simple Rules to Live by to Get in Shape in Two Weeks

      7 Simple Rules to Live by to Get in Shape in Two Weeks

      Learning how to get in shape and set goals is important if you’re looking to live a healthier lifestyle and get closer to your goal weight. While this does require changes to your daily routine, you’ll find that you are able to look and feel better in only two weeks.

      Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to get in shape. Although anyone can cover the basics (eat right and exercise), there are some things that I could only learn through trial and error. Let’s cover some of the most important points for how to get in shape in two weeks.

      1. Exercise Daily

      It is far easier to make exercise a habit if it is a daily one. If you aren’t exercising at all, I recommend starting by exercising a half hour every day. When you only exercise a couple times per week, it is much easier to turn one day off into three days off, a week off, or a month off.

      If you are already used to exercising, switching to three or four times a week to fit your schedule may be preferable, but it is a lot harder to maintain a workout program you don’t do every day.

      Be careful to not repeat the same exercise routine each day. If you do an intense ab workout one day, try switching it up to general cardio the next. You can also squeeze in a day of light walking to break up the intensity.

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      If you’re a morning person, check out these morning exercises that will start your day off right.

      2. Duration Doesn’t Substitute for Intensity

      Once you get into the habit of regular exercise, where do you go if you still aren’t reaching your goals? Most people will solve the problem by exercising for longer periods of time, turning forty-minute workouts into two hour stretches. Not only does this drain your time, but it doesn’t work particularly well.

      One study shows that “exercising for a whole hour instead of a half does not provide any additional loss in either body weight or fat”[1].

      This is great news for both your schedule and your levels of motivation. You’ll likely find it much easier to exercise for 30 minutes a day instead of an hour. In those 30 minutes, do your best to up the intensity to your appropriate edge to get the most out of the time.

      3. Acknowledge Your Limits

      Many people get frustrated when they plateau in their weight loss or muscle gaining goals as they’re learning how to get in shape. Everyone has an equilibrium and genetic set point where their body wants to remain. This doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your fitness goals, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you are struggling to lose weight or put on muscle.

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      Acknowledging a set point doesn’t mean giving up, but it does mean realizing the obstacles you face.

      Expect to hit a plateau in your own fitness results[2]. When you expect a plateau, you can manage around it so you can continue your progress at a more realistic rate. When expectations meet reality, you can avoid dietary crashes.

      4. Eat Healthy, Not Just Food That Looks Healthy

      Know what you eat. Don’t fuss over minutia like whether you’re getting enough Omega 3’s or tryptophan, but be aware of the big things. Look at the foods you eat regularly and figure out whether they are healthy or not. Don’t get fooled by the deceptively healthy snacks just pretending to be good for you.

      The basic nutritional advice includes:

      • Eat unprocessed foods
      • Eat more veggies
      • Use meat as a side dish, not a main course
      • Eat whole grains, not refined grains[3]

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      Eat whole grains when you want to learn how to get in shape.

        5. Watch Out for Travel

        Don’t let a four-day holiday interfere with your attempts when you’re learning how to get in shape. I don’t mean that you need to follow your diet and exercise plan without any excursion, but when you are in the first few weeks, still forming habits, be careful that a week long break doesn’t terminate your progress.

        This is also true of schedule changes that leave you suddenly busy or make it difficult to exercise. Have a backup plan so you can be consistent, at least for the first month when you are forming habits.

        If travel is on your schedule and can’t be avoided, make an exercise plan before you go[4], and make sure to pack exercise clothes and an exercise mat as motivation to keep you on track.

        6. Start Slow

        Ever start an exercise plan by running ten miles and then puking your guts out? Maybe you aren’t that extreme, but burnout is common early on when learning how to get in shape. You have a lifetime to be healthy, so don’t try to go from couch potato to athletic superstar in a week.

        If you are starting a running regime, for example, run less than you can to start. Starting strength training? Work with less weight than you could theoretically lift. Increasing intensity and pushing yourself can come later when your body becomes comfortable with regular exercise.

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        7. Be Careful When Choosing a Workout Partner

        Should you have a workout partner? That depends. Workout partners can help you stay motivated and make exercising more fun. But they can also stop you from reaching your goals.

        My suggestion would be to have a workout partner, but when you start to plateau (either in physical ability, weight loss/gain, or overall health) and you haven’t reached your goals, consider mixing things up a bit.

        If you plateau, you may need to make changes to continue improving. In this case it’s important to talk to your workout partner about the changes you want to make, and if they don’t seem motivated to continue, offer a thirty day break where you both try different activities.

        I notice that guys working out together tend to match strength after a brief adjustment phase. Even if both are trying to improve, something seems to stall improvement once they reach a certain point. I found that I was able to lift as much as 30-50% more after taking a short break from my regular workout partner.

        Final Thoughts

        Learning how to get in shape in as little as two weeks sounds daunting, but if you’re motivated and have the time and energy to devote to it, it’s certainly possible.

        Find an exercise routine that works for you, eat healthy, drink lots of water, and watch as the transformation begins.

        More Tips on Getting in Shape

        Featured photo credit: Alexander Redl via unsplash.com

        Reference

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