Can You Increase Your Pain Threshold by Altering Brain Chemistry?

Can You Increase Your Pain Threshold by Altering Brain Chemistry?

The brain actually changes to help when you feel pain.  That’s what researchers in from The University of Manchester say in a study to be published in the November issue of Pain.

They wondered why do some people seem to have a bigger tolerance to pain than others.  It’s well known that the brain has receptors that respond like natural painkilling opiates, and now researchers have shown that these receptors increase in number to help cope with long-term, chronic pain.

The researchers took 17 people who suffer with arthritis and nine others as a control, to see why there seemed to be a difference between the groups with respect to pain tolerance.

They applied heat to the study participants’ skin with a laser, and used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging to show the spread of the opioid receptors.  They found that the more opiate receptors there are in the brain, the higher the ability to withstand the pain.

“As far as we are aware, this is the first time that these changes have been associated with increased resilience to pain and shown to be adaptive,” said Dr. Christopher Brown, the lead author of the study.

“Although the mechanisms of these adaptive changes are unknown, if we can understand how we can enhance them, we may find ways of naturally increasing resilience to pain without the side effects associated with many pain killing drugs,” Dr. Brown added.

Professor Anthony Jones, who is the director of the Manchester Pain Consortium, said, “This is very exciting because it changes the way we think about chronic pain.

“This is very exciting because it changes the way we think about chronic pain,” said Anthony Jones, a director of the Manchester Pain Consortium which is focused on improving the understanding and treatment of chronic pain.

“There is generally a rather negative and fatalistic view of chronic pain. This study shows that although the group as a whole are more physiologically vulnerable, the whole pain system is very flexible and that individuals can adaptively upregulate their resilience to pain,” Prof. Jones added.

What does this mean for the future, according to Prof Jones?  

“It may be that some simple interventions can further enhance this natural process, and designing smart molecules or simple non-drug interventions to do a similar thing is potentially attractive.”

And, what does this mean for pain sufferers?

Val Derbyshire, a patient with arthritis said: “As a patient who suffers chronic pain from osteoarthritis, I am extremely interested in this research. I feel I have developed coping mechanisms to deal with my pain over the years, yet still have to take opioid medication to relieve my symptoms.

“The fact that this medication has to be increased from time to time concerns me greatly, due to the addictive nature of these drugs. The notion of enhancing the natural opiates in the brain, such as endorphins, as a response to pain, seems to me to be infinitely preferable to long term medication with opiate drugs,” she added.

On a related matter, National Pain Report reported earlier this year about the power of altering the brain to produce endorphins through laughter, which you can read here.

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I do agree with you Jake and was going to make the same comment about what she stated at the end of the article. We become dependent. We are not “addicts” looking for a high. We are looking for pain relief and take it as prescribed and you will be fine. Yes, we still go through the withdrawals like someone who has addiction problems because these are narcotics that we are dealing with. I live with a pain scale of a 4-6 on a daily basis, with opiates. If anything acute happens and I go further than a 6, I know I’m in big trouble. I will try everything I can at home ie. lidoderm patches, compound pain cream, heat or ice etc and if it all fails then I have to resort to smoking weed and my pain is gone within minutes (not legal here). I do believe in retraining the brain and neurons with things like CBT therapy and it may help people who live in severe chronic pain as a coping mechanism and then again it may work for more people. I think it really differs from patient to patient on who this treatment would help. Should we have some type of coping techniques? I believe we should, but it’s really hard to implement when someones pain level is different on a daily basis. Do we build a tolerance to small dosages, of course!

Responding to the patient quotes at the bottom of the article, which offer a very common misconception.

Medication Tolerance doe NOT equate to Addiction. And many studies have shown that chronic pain sufferers who utilize opioids correctly (enough to help, not more) do not become addicts.

Anyone taking an opioid for a significant time who stops will go through withdrawals. Withdrawals ALSO do not signify addiction.

Tolerance does occur, and will occur faster and more severely if the dosage of opioid is too high. But there is a huge difference between addiction and tolerance. Tolerance can also be managed by occasionally weaning off (dealing with the withdrawals) and restarting. There are also things like Lidocaine infusions (not an opioid) that help reset the pain mechanisms and can lower doses on opioids. Additionally there are newer classes of opioids that are partial-agonists which both protect against overdoses as well as helping block some levels of pain by blocking the opioid receptors (Buprenorphine/Subutex being one of these).

Please, as a fellow patient (with not just arthritis but far more), stop the equating of opioid tolerance with addicition. It stigmatizes an already vulnerable population.