Studies have shown that chronic pain may change our brains and the way we process emotions

Key points

  • New research has found that there may be a chemical imbalance in the emotion-regulating part of the brain of people suffering from chronic pain.
  • Neuroimaging shows that people with chronic pain have lower levels of both neurotransmitters.
  • The impact of chronic pain on a person’s lifestyle and health habits can also damage their emotional health, but there are ways to cope.

Chronic pain is not just a physical sensation-it can also have a profound impact on a person’s mental health. Now, new research has found changes in the brains of patients with chronic pain, which may partly explain the impact of this condition on emotional health.

Recently published in ” European Journal of Pain It was found that the level of certain chemical messengers in the medial prefrontal cortex of people suffering from chronic pain was significantly reduced. The medial prefrontal cortex is part of the brain and helps to regulate emotions.

These findings help to better understand the link between chronic pain and mental health.


Researchers from Australia and the United States used neuroimaging technology to compare the brain chemistry of 24 patients with chronic pain and 24 people without a history of persistent pain. Participants in the control group were matched with other people of the same age and gender in the chronic pain group.

The research team found that gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels were significantly reduced in patients with chronic pain. This neurotransmitter reduces the activity of the central nervous system, This can have many effects on the body, including a state of mind that can lead to calmness.

Shamin Ladhani, PhD in Psychology

The research builds on other studies in the field, which have shown that when pain persists or becomes chronic pain, significant changes occur in the brain.

— Shamin Ladhani, PhD in Psychology

The results also showed that compared with the control group, patients with chronic pain had less glutamate in the brain. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in certain brain functions, such as memory and cognition, as well as the activities of the immune system and gastrointestinal tract.

The study authors say that, in general, this chemical imbalance in the brain may affect how people experience chronic pain and how pain harms mental health.

“Although its sample size is small, it is an important study because it can help people struggling with pain understand that the depression or anxiety they may have is directly related to the brain changes caused by pain,” Ph.D. Said Shamin Ladhani, a psychologist who designs clinical programs for patients with chronic pain. “This research builds on other studies in the field, which show that when pain persists or becomes chronic pain, significant changes occur in the brain.”

Understanding the connection of brain pain

Chronic pain is associated with a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. The findings of this study help provide a potential physiological explanation for the overlap between chronic pain and emotional health.

“This research seems to show that difficulty in regulating emotions, especially negative emotions, is at least partially affected by different brain chemicals,” explains Desreen Dudley, a clinical psychologist and Teladoc’s senior behavioral health quality consultant.

“One reason may be that when the brain experiences persistent and strong pain signals, the number of neurons in the prefrontal cortex may decrease, resulting in decreased neuronal activity that people use to regulate strong emotions, such as depression and anxiety.”

These neurotransmitter imbalances may not be the only brain changes in chronic pain patients.

Leela R. Magavi, MD

Chronic pain, such as chronic depression, can change the activity of the brain, allowing itself to persist.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

“Due to various connections in the brain, pain and emotional health are deeply intertwined. Pathways involved in pain utilize neurotransmitters similar to pathways related to mood and anxiety disorders,” children, adolescents, and adult psychiatrists, communities Said Leela R. Magavi, MD, Regional Medical Director of Psychiatry and MindPath Care Center. “Chronic pain, like chronic depression, can change the activity of the brain to make itself sustainable.”

Dr. Dudley said that how chronic pain affects other areas of physical health may exacerbate this cycle. “People with chronic body pain often report problems with sleep, fatigue, inattention, memory and appetite,” she said.

Another confounding factor in the mental health outcomes of patients with chronic pain may be the actual impact of living with permanent discomfort. Dr. Ladhani said that chronic pain can make it challenging for a person to work, participate in activities they enjoy, and build healthy and fulfilling relationships with others, all of which can affect mental health.

She added: “Pain is an invisible disease. Patients with chronic pain often experience rejection or experience minimization, which can make them feel lonely, isolated, and further deteriorate their mental health.”

Techniques for coping with chronic pain

Suffering from chronic pain can be a physical and emotional stressful experience. Finding ways to cope with discomfort and negative emotions can help improve your quality of life and emotional health.

Start by reading about the diseases that cause your pain and possible treatments. Dr. Magavi said that you may also consider contacting other people in similar situations.

“Many people still deny [about their condition], Which can increase depression, depression, and pain itself. I recommend staying at peace with the diagnosis, joining support groups, and advocating for awareness-raising,” she suggested. “This kind of connection and altruism can really heal many people. ”

Desreen Dudley, PhD in Psychology

Dealing with chronic pain can make you feel isolated and helpless, and you don’t have to deal with it alone.

— Desreen Dudley, PhD in Psychology

Try different relaxation techniques. When your symptoms are particularly severe, these techniques can help you get rid of the pain. Dr. Ladhani said this could include mindfulness, breathing exercises, and even hypnosis.

“A simple strategy to use now is to distract. Studies have shown that just shifting your attention to things you like, even for a short period of time, can help reduce pain and emotional pain,” she added .

When you feel appropriate, try to participate in your favorite activities, whether it’s gardening, reading, playing a musical instrument, or other activities. “Pleasant activity can trigger and possibly strengthen brain signals that use our’feel good’ emotions,” said Dr. Dudley.

Finally, consider contacting a mental health professional who can help you deal with your feelings in a safe space. “Managing chronic pain can make people feel isolated and helpless, and you don’t have to deal with it alone,” Dr. Dudley said.

What this means to you

Chronic pain can increase your risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. The new study found that although there may be multiple reasons behind this connection, one possible explanation is the imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brains of patients with chronic pain.

Although chronic pain can have a profound impact on your emotional health, there are still some ways to help you cope. Experts recommend learning about the disease that causes pain, joining a support group, and practicing relaxation techniques. You may also consider meeting with a mental health professional for one-on-one support.


Studies have shown that chronic pain may change our brains and the way we process emotions
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