Written by Greg Diamond
Chronic pain is not just a physical issue; it’s a mental/emotional one as well. So if you struggle with back pain as well as anxiety, depression, foggy thinking or even memory problems, there’s a good chance they could be related.
In fact, new research shows that chronic pain dramatically affects the hippocampal region of your brain, which is an important part of learning, memory and emotional processing.
Chronic Pain Stops the Growth of New Neurons
It used to be thought that the number of neurons in your brain was determined at the time you were born, and only decreased as you got older. Now, however, it’s known that neurogenesis — the growth of new neurons — is not only possible, it happens all the time, virtually every day, if the conditions are right (such as if you challenge your brain by learning new things and exercise regularly).
That said, a recent study revealed that chronic pain reduces the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, disrupting its electrical and biochemical signalling. They then measured hippocampal volume in humans, and found those with chronic back pain had significantly smaller hippocampus’, which they believe may be the reason why those with pain also often struggle with learning and emotional deficits.
It stands to reason, then, that resolving your back pain at the foundational level may allow for the process of neurogenesis to resume, with potentially profound impacts on your mental health.
Does Treating Back Pain Enhance Your Cognitive Function?
People with chronic pain are more likely to have impaired cognitive ability, which makes sense since chronic pain is also associated with reduced grey matter in the brain (grey matter is associated with higher order cognitive processes). A recent study of 18 chronic low back pain patients used MRI scans to confirm that both brain grey matter and cognitive ability were indeed decreased compared to those without pain.
Six months later, after their back pain had been successfully treated, the former chronic pain patients had marked improvements in their brains, including:
- Increased cortical thickness in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which was correlated with the reduction of both pain and physical disability.
- Increased thickness in the primary motor cortex, which was associated specifically with reduced physical disability.
- Increased thickness in the right anterior insula, which was associated specifically with reduced pain.
- Left DLPFC activity during an attention-demanding cognitive task was abnormal before treatment, but normalised following treatment.
The researchers concluded;
“These data indicate that functional and structural brain abnormalities are reversible, suggesting that treating chronic pain can restore normal brain function in humans.”
If you're suffering with chronic pain, book an appointment by calling 08 93843269 or click here to book online.