The American Psychological Association notes that chronic pain can negatively affect a person’s life. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. Because of this, they suggest that mental practices and support are an important component to chronic pain management. The following video discusses these suggestions. Then we’ll discuss how mental practices, like yoga, meditation, and visualization, can help change your brain when it comes to chronic pain.
How does chronic pain change the brain?
Chronic pain changes the brain in numerous ways. First, it changes the amount of gray matter present. Gray matter is found in the brain and spinal cord, and is an important part of the nervous system. It contains nerve cells and related parts. Researchers have also found reduced gray matter in patients living with fibromyalgia, according to APS. Scientists believe the decline might be related to disruptions in the neurotransmitter dopamine, linked to pleasure and reward.
The reduced gray matter not only affects pain, but also anxiety and depression. Dr. M. Catherine Bushnell with the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) told a meeting of the APS:
“Imaging studies in multiple types of chronic pain patients show their brains differ from healthy control subjects (by having less gray matter)… Studies of people with depression show they also have reduced gray matter.”
Other changes in the brain include where the pain is processed. Research published in the journal Brain found that while acute pain is processed in areas meant for processing pain, chronic pain moves to areas more involved in emotion. Chronic pain is an emotional experience as well as a physical one, and the link in brain chemistry highlights that connection.
Visualization can help with chronic pain management
Visualization, the process of imagining specific scenes or imagery, is effective for helping people manage pain, according to a study conducted by the European Society of Cardiology. The mind and body are intimately connected, with thoughts influencing biology and biology influencing thoughts. For example, undesirable emotional states like stress and depression have been identified as causes of a weakened immune system. This can increase the risk of the cold or flu, according to FamilyDoctor.org.
The interplay between the body and mind plays a major role in chronic pain management. Before advances in modern medicine, doctors believed that emotions were significant causes of disease. Family physicians focused heavily on lifestyle factors that were believed to contribute to pain and other health conditions. As medicine became more advanced, the focus shifted to biological causes of disease. The emotional connection was lost, according to the National Institutes of Health.