The Damaging Effect of Chronic Pain on the Brain
Chronic pain can impact your life in so many ways. It can rob you of the activities you once loved and leave you feeling depressed and anxious. It can also alter your brain in ways that keep you mired in negative moods and emotions.
That’s what happened to Sam, a 38-year-old police officer. After three car accidents, he had pain that didn’t go away, even after six back surgeries. The pain was so intense, he was practically bedridden, and his family was about to leave him. He couldn’t stop thinking about the pain, and believing he had no way out, Sam attempted suicide. It was only after that attempt that Sam sought help to find out what was happening in his brain.
CHRONIC PAIN IN THE BRAIN
Chronic pain can change the way your brain functions. Brain imaging shows that people who have chronic pain often have high activity in the thalamus, which is part of the limbic system that is the brain’s emotional center. Too much activity in this region is associated with depression.
Sam also had marked overactivity in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG). This area of the brain acts like the brain’s gear shifter. When it is healthy, it helps you go from one idea to another. When it is overactive, you tend to get stuck on worrisome thoughts. It also indicates low levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. When serotonin is low, people tend to be obsessive, moody, and inflexible. This caused Sam to get stuck on thoughts about his pain and his perceived hopelessness.
GETTING YOUR BRAIN UNSTUCK
Even though chronic pain can alter the way your brain functions, it doesn’t have to be permanent. If you’re suffering from chronic pain, medication may be recommended, but there are also many natural ways to calm an overactive limbic system as well as an ACG that is working too hard.
5 Ways to Balance the Limbic System
- Supplements: Mood-supporting supplements like SAMe and fish oil support healthy limbic system function.
- Acupuncture: The ancient medical art of acupuncture has been shown to help with pain and mood, and brain imaging studies show it calms the limbic system.
- Neurofeedback: Studies suggest that this treatment, in which brain-wave activity is measured and then optimized through training, can help with pain and mood.
- ANT Therapy: Challenging the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) that infest your mind can help you gain more control over your feelings and behavior.
- Strengthen your social bonds: Surrounding yourself with supportive people who make you feel good can help keep negativity at bay.
3 Ways to Balance the Anterior Cingulate Gyrus
- Supplements: The supplements 5-HTP, saffron, inositol, tryptophan, St. John’s Wort, or omega-3 fatty acids higher in DHA are the most helpful for raising serotonin levels and calming this part of the brain.
- Thought stopping: Learning to stop the obsessive, worrisome thoughts that loop in your head is key to gaining control over your thinking.
- Nutritional interventions: Complex carbohydrates (such as sweet potatoes and garbanzo beans) and foods rich in L-tryptophan (such as chicken, turkey, eggs, and nut butters) can raise serotonin levels.
Sam used a combination of these strategies—supplements, acupuncture, social bonding, and more—to balance his brain and address his pain. After a month, Sam said his back still hurt, but he was much less focused on the pain. He was able to get out of bed and go back to school to start training for a different line of work.
Don’t let chronic pain keep you on the sidelines of life. At Amen Clinics, where Sam was treated, brain SPECT imaging is performed as part of a comprehensive evaluation for people with chronic pain as well as symptoms of depression or obsessive thoughts. The Amen Clinics Method takes an integrative approach to diagnosis and treatment to help balance the brain utilizing the least toxic, most effective solutions so you can stop focusing on the pain and start living again.
To find a path to help you feel better fast, call 888-288-9834 to talk to a specialist today or schedule a visit.