It doesn’t come as a surprise that chronic pain takes its toll on one’s mind just as much as it affects the body. After all, hours of suffering for days straight couldn’t go without leaving a mark on your brain, right?
In this article, we are going to spotlight the multitude of effects that chronic pain has on the human brain, share a couple of resources that could help you in keeping track of the changes, as well as give you some tips on how you can prevent or slow them down.
What’s at stake?
The only way to analyze and measure the changes happening in the mind of someone suffering from chronic pain is to evaluate this person’s cognitive functions and such brain-dependent endogenous factors like mood and quality of sleep.
While mood and sleep do not require any further explanation, cognitive functions are the specific “skills” your brain uses to gather and synthesize information, thus leading to knowledge.
- Attention and concentration
- Verbal skills (language)
To a certain extent, each of these functions are impaired by pain. In most cases, they all are.
How often does chronic pain affect the brain?
It is hard to estimate the impact that chronic pain has on one’s cognitive functions, mood and sleep in each specific case due to individual peculiarities, but we can be sure of the incidence of impairment on a larger scale. For example, according to multiple researches and questionnaires:
- 67% of people with chronic pain report impaired memory.
- The majority of people with chronic pain show weakened attention and slower reaction time in general.
- 5 to 88.9% report disrupted sleep patterns.
- 7% report anxiety and depressive disorder (compared to 10.1% in the pain-free population).
But the scariest part of this story isn’t about memory, sleep, or mood: it’s about the brain itself.
A study published in 2004 in the Journal of Neuroscience compared the brain’s volume in chronic pain sufferers to that of pain-free subjects, and the results were terrifying. It turns out that each year of chronic pain makes your brain’s neocortical gray matter to shrink (irreversibly) by 0.2%, as a “bonus” to the yearly 0.5% of natural yearly age-related brain atrophy in all people. That’s thousands of neurons dying non-stop.
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (seated right behind your forehead and a bit to the sides) was the primary region that showed impaired gray matter density, and guess what are some of its main functions? Working memory, abstract reasoning, cognitive flexibility, and planning.
In other words, chronic pain almost literally eats up your brain. But is there a way to fight the process?
The first step in this matter is to closely monitor your brain’s functions to be aware of any possible changes.
How to monitor your brain?
As mentioned in the little list in the beginning of this article, the best reflection of your brain’s overall function are its cognitive feats, namely attention, memory, concentration, reasoning, and verbal skills. Here are a couple of ways you can keep track of how well they are doing:
- Take a brain functionality test. One of the best resources freely available for this matter is the TestMyBrain website, not only for the quality of its tests, but because you’ll have the possibility to anonymously contribute to scientific studies on brain functions all around the world with your results.
- Try out some “brain fitness” apps & websites, such as Lumosity and FitBrains, which offer you a vast array of minigames that put your attention, memory, and concentration to the test. Your high scores would then be a reflection of your brain’s cognitive functions.
How to decrease the effects of chronic pain on your brain?
First and foremost, hone your pain management skills. By learning how to lead an active and happy life despite the physical discomfort and suffering you will ultimately improve your health in general, decrease rates of cognitive impairment, enhance mood and quality of sleep.
Additionally, it is recommended to adopt a regular functional testing routine. It does not have to be a daily one, as all of the changes in the human brain are gradual and rather slow by nature. Testing yourself every month or two should be more than enough.
Next step: use your brain as much and as often as you can. After all, atrophy itself is the result of underuse or neglect, and this applies to any organ in your body. If you don’t make use of your muscles, they waste away. If you don’t use your brain, it will shrink.
To slow down both age-related and pain-related brain atrophy, engage in all sorts of intellectual challenges and activities: solve puzzles and crosswords, play chess, learn a foreign language, master coding, or start playing a musical instrument. Everything that demands concentration, reasoning and perseverance counts, so don’t hold back!
Remember that chronic pain isn’t something that will inevitably and dramatically damage your brain in a matter of years, so relax, slow down, and design a routine that will keep your brain fit and healthy. Take a test, practice some mental jiujutsu, use your noodle and never stop learning!
This is the fourth article in a five-part series dedicated to living a happy and active life with chronic pain. This article is meant for reassurance, a piece of support, almost a promise: you can do it.
Other articles in this series include: