For people with chronic pain, pain and limited mobility aren’t the only challenges. Long-term pain also affects the brain in ways that lead to chronic depression, anxiety, and cognitive difficulty. In functional neurology we look at not only how to treat chronic pain, but also how to protect the brain from the impacts of chronic pain. Addressing brain imbalances caused by chronic pain can actually help bring relief and begin to unwind the pain.
Scientists at Northwestern University found that in patients with chronic pain, depression and other brain-related symptoms may be triggered by a malfunction in a region of the brain called the cortex.
In a healthy brain, each region activates or deactivates according to its intended functions, creating a natural equilibrium between all the regions that ebbs and flows moment to moment in response to the environment and the body.
But with chronic pain, a part of the cortex "never shuts up," according to Dante Chialvo, lead author of the study.
Areas that ought to deactivate fail to do so, leading to a full-throttle activation that alters connections between neurons and can lead to permanent damage.
Chialvo's team used MRI technology to compare the brains of chronic pain subjects with the brains of pain-free people. When both groups took on the same task, the chronic pain group performed the task just as well as the pain-free group, but their brain functioned somewhat differently.
When certain parts of the cortex activated in the pain-free group, others deactivated, creating the expected equilibrium called the "resting state network."
In the chronic pain group, however, one of the nodes in this network stayed fired up instead of deactivating.
According to Chialvo, "We know when neurons fire too much they may change their connections with other neurons or even die because they can't sustain high activity for so long."
These changes may affect mood and make it more difficult to make decisions.
The findings indicate not only a need for better pain management options, but new ways to prevent the brain dysfunction that may lie behind these symptoms.
That’s why if you find yourself in a situation where you experience chronically it’s important to seek functional neurology rehabilitation not only to dampen or relieve the pain but also to protect your brain from the damages of chronic pain.
Chronic pain is learned by the body like a new skill
Chronic pain is similar to a learned memory such as typing — repetition enables you to learn something new by supporting transmission of the right signals between neurons. Persistent pain becomes chronic because the neurons involved become more efficient at transmitting pain signals.
A recent Canadian study that looked more deeply into this has identified a molecule that can reduce chronic pain-related anxiety by blocking the signals sent between neurons that create chronic pain.
This molecule, called NB001, has powerful pain-reducing effects in animal models and may lead to new medical interventions for chronic pain and anxiety.
Functional neurology methods to address chronic pain
Chronic pain can rob you of enjoyment in life and drain you of the energy to even take the steps to address it.
Conventional treatment relies heavily on quick fixes such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), narcotics, and antidepressant pain modifiers. However, these substances can build dependencies and potentially cause hearing loss. Temporary fixes for chronic pain don't get to the root causes.
In functional neurology we look at chronic pain from a whole-body perspective, seeking the root causes and addressing them from the ground up. While medications are sometimes necessary, there are many things you can do to mediate pain in other ways.
Inflammation is one of the most common causes of chronic pain. The result of your body's immune response to harmful environmental toxins, allergies, food sensitivities, and stress, inflammation must be mediated in order to relieve chronic pain.
Following an anti-inflammatory diet is key for mediating inflammation. Many common foods are to blame for systemic inflammation, such as gluten, dairy, eggs, grains, legumes, and those in the nightshade family (white potatoes, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and more).
Many people experience profound pain relief by simply avoiding one of more of those food categories.
For those with autoimmunity, an anti-inflammatory diet is foundational for managing not only chronic pain, but many other associated symptoms.
A functional neurology practitioner can help determine what tests to run to find out if you have specific food sensitivities.
Avoiding excess sugars is important for quelling pain and inflammation. Blood sugar that is too low or too high, or that swings frequently from one extreme to the other, contributes to inflammation of the body and especially the brain.
Mild to moderate exercise can help reduce systemic inflammation and related pain. While an exercise-induced injury is of course the exception, moving your body helps circulate blood and oxygen, remove toxins, and motivate the immune system to function properly. Be cautious of over exercising, though, as over-doing it can flare up systemic inflammation and pain.
Sleep is one of the most powerful mediators for chronic pain. While sometimes it's the pain itself that keeps someone from sleep, there are ways you can support good sleep such as:
- Get 8-10 hours of sleep a day. If you can't get that much in one stretch, nap whenever possible.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
- Avoid screen time (blue light) in the hour before bed.
- If you must use a screen in the evening, use blue-blocker glasses, or an app such as F.lux on your computer to filter out the blue tones and allow in the brain-calming amber.
- Sleep in a cool room with plenty of covers to stay warm.
- Make your bedroom only for sleeping, no non-sleep activities allowed.
Stress management. High stress goes hand-in-hand with systemic inflammation. A daily stress-reduction practice such as meditation, tai chi, chi gong, yoga, or laughter and play goes a long way toward reducing pain and inflammation.
Your functional medicine practitioner may have other ways to help alleviate your chronic pain, including:
- Herbal and nutritional compounds to alleviate inflammation, promote sleep, and reduce stress
- Therapeutic body work
- Breathing techniques
- Other lifestyle adjustments
Chronic pain is hard to live with, and to remedy it you must take action. Contact my office for functional neurology help with your chronic pain condition.