Chronic Pain Structurally Changes our Brain
Our brains are made up of gray matter and white matter.
Gray matter is made up of pools of neurons that are responsible for specific tasks.
White matter is made up of axons which carry the information from our neurons to another region of the brain or body.
When we look at how chronic pain changes our brains, multiple MRI studies have shown that size of gray matter in our brains decrease. This is observed in parts of the brain that are associated with the painful body region, but it also affects other areas of the brain that affect us emotionally and cognitively.
We don’t necessarily know the exact implications of this, but it’s been suggested that decreased gray matter may be associated with decreased functionality of those brain regions. This is mostly driven by aging research where decreased gray matter is associated with declining cognition.
This may be a mechanism for how chronic pain can have downstream affects on cognition, autonomic function, and depression.
The good news is that these changes in gray matter are actually reversible!
Studies have shown that when pain is reduced or eliminated, some of these brain changes actually start to increase again.
We know that pain has a functional purpose in the acute phase, but chronic pain can be quite detrimental.
While we can’t always rid someone of pain, having the ability to reduce pain and the consequences of pain is really important. It’s also really important to develop emotional and cognitive strategies to best manage painful syndromes as well.