One of the most surprising, “ah-ha,” “no wonder this happened” findings of my 12+ years research has been the fact that the brain controls EVERYTHING we think, feel, say and do – everything! This means chronic pain is “felt” in the brain.
I wrote about this concept in my August 29, 2014 article, “Chronic Pain and Opioid Addiction,” in which I covered the following key concepts:
- The brain controls everything we think, feel, say and do through neural networks and brain maps.
- Pain is in the brain.
- Pain meds don’t just block opioid receptors – they also trigger massive releases of dopamine neurotransmitters.
- A person can be physically dependent and not addicted to a pain med, yet the withdrawal symptoms can be the same.
How the Brain Maps Chronic Pain
When you injure yourself, pain receptors in the peripheral nervous system send pain signals to the spinal cord. At the spinal cord, bundles of sensory neurons in the dorsal horn act as a hub and send reflex messages to the injury site (take your hand off the burner, for example) and pain messages to the brain. These pain messages to the brain run throughout, triggering neural networks ranging from those involved with fight-or-flight, to those responsible to assessing this pain in context of similar pain, to so many more too numerous to count.
And this is where it can get “complicated.” If the brain attaches fear to the event – say fear about what you’ll be able to do now that you’ve broken your foot, or it attaches anxiety to the injury event – say anxiety about doing something, like exercise, that might make the pain worse, or it attaches worry about the prognosis for a full recovery, the brain starts to get the pain messages linked up with the emotions. So that if a person feels that twinge of fear when they move their foot, the brain “reads” it as pain. Additionally, if the brain is under major emotional stress around other things going on at the time of injury, say loss of a job, it can attach those stress-related feelings to the feeling of pain, as well. Thus when another job application they’ve submitted is declined, for example, their brain “feels” that old “pain.”
Not only this but pain often interrupts sleep and gets in the way of wanting to exercise. Both lack of sleep and lack of exercise in turn change brain chemistry, which in turn can lead to depression or a brain mapping that further inhibits sleep and exercise. And why would this be such a problem? When the brain does not get the powerful brain benefits of restful sleep and exercise (these actually “do things” to various parts of those strands of holiday lights), it interrupts normal neural network activity, which then exacerbates the problem.
Not only are there all of these sorts of emotion / thought-related mappings going on, BUT there are the brain maps around the chemical interruptions to the neurotransmitters and receptors’ portions of various neural networks. These interruptions are caused by the chemicals in the drug compound, itself.
Implications for Pain Medication Addiction
To explain this is to explain how opioid pain meds work in the brain | body.
A portion of the pain med compound binds to receptors at the injury site. A portion of the pain med compound binds to opioid receptors found throughout the brain and nervous system – the receptors on neural networks involved with the “complicated” bit above. And a portion trigger massive releases of dopamine neurotransmitters – the neurotransmitters responsible for the brain’s pleasure/reward neural networks.
With the surge of dopamine component of an opioid pain medication, the pain is not being “killed,” per se – rather it’s being overwhelmed by the content, euphoric, satisfied feelings that dopamine neural networks provide. And, of course, the brain likes that feeling, so it maps the desire for pleasure (which comes with the pain meds), in addition to all of the other brain mapping going on.
This is where the strand of holiday lights analogy described in my original post comes into play, again. Between the “complicated” stuff described above and the brain / body pain med interactions, there are so many strands (neural networks) with frayed wires, loose bulbs and power surges, that a person’s thoughts and behaviors and what they feel and how they react / respond is out of whack.
In the case of acute pain, which is normal, and lasts anywhere from a week or two to a few months, pain medications help calm all of the opioid reliant neural networks involved with injury pain. Once the injury site is healed, the brain no longer feels pain and the person is weened off their pain medication.
BUT, in the case of chronic pain, the continued feeling of pain MAY be being triggered by the “complicated”-related brain mapping around fear, anxiety, emotions related to other events going on at the time and the “ah” feeling mapped around dopamine described above. The brain can actually be hijacked, if you will, because it has maps that “tell it” that pain meds are the answer to “pain” – pain which is now triggered by emotions, memories and the drive to feel good – all of the cues it has mapped to be “answered” by the pain med.
For the Rest of the Story
- neural networks, brain maps and pain,
- acute vs chronic pain,
- opioid pain medication withdrawal, and
- what to do
check out my original article, “Chronic Pain and Opioid Pain Addiction.”