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.