Health Scoop

The Pain Experience: Modify Your Brain Signature

Neuronal synapse with neurotransmitters, pain signals.

IF YOU’RE A chronic pain sufferer, it may as well all be in your head….anatomically speaking.

Lower back pain or cramps during the menstrual cycle may be a mild nuisance for some, but they can be debilitating in those with a brain that literally has been programmed to hurt. Studies now show that some individuals may be genetically predisposed to brain changes resulting from pain perception experienced in trauma or in chronic stress.

Those who suffer from daily back pain or spend a few days on the couch in the fetal position during their menstrual cycle, may have a more active resting brain state compared to those who take pain signals with a grain of salt.

It is yet unclear what causes some brain regions to become more active in chronic pain. One theory includes a genetic predisposition to inheriting peripheral pain receptors that are more easily sensitized in response to physical trauma or stress; another points to spinal cord reorganization of pain pathways following an injury.

In the normal brain, there is a distribution of areas collectively called the default-mode network that manages the environmental input of information. In chronic pain sufferers, that network appears to lose its functional balance. Why? It may be molecular, environment, or both. Experts are still in the process of looking for answers.

Moreover, pain medication is not exactly the answer here. Pain pathways each have a unique fingerprint and prescription pain pills are on par with bandaging a necrotic wound, not dealing with the root of the problem. Overprescription of opioids has become an epidemic, often leading to overdoses in patients suffering from chronic pain, since these patients need increasing doses to stay pain free.

Although definitive solutions are still in the works, some studies have indicated that practicing meditation on a regular basis may actually help restructure those pathways. Brain images from Zen aficionados showed that these individuals had greater control over the brain regions associated with the default-mode network. Chronic pain patients who practiced mindful meditation for 10 weeks were found to have decreased pain pill utilization and increased level of self-esteem.

Ref: Baliki et al. Beyond Feeling: Chronic Pain Hurts the Brain, Disrupting the Default-Mode Network Dynamics (Journal of Neuroscience)

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