In the United States, chronic pain is now more common than diabetes or depression. Although two recent studies, one on a potential intervention and the other on the origins of chronic pain, shed light on the condition, which is becoming more prevalent, it can be persistent and difficult to treat.
Even though exercise may be the last thing a person with pain wants to do, research that was published on May 24 in the journal Plos ONE suggests that it could be a crucial part of recovery. Researchers at the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsø examined individuals’ self-reported activity levels and pain tolerance (measured by submerging people’s hands in ice water and having them rank their pain on a scale) using data from a large Norwegian population study involving 10,732 adults. Two surveys were conducted approximately eight years apart.
It was found that people who lead more active lives are more tolerant of pain. The more people who said they exercised during the study, the more tolerant they were of pain. Those who had increased their levels of physical activity in the interim reported greater pain tolerance over time when both survey years were taken into account. The authors speculate that increasing one’s level of physical activity could serve as a “non-pharmacological pathway towards reducing or preventing chronic pain.”
Because scientists do not yet fully comprehend how the body perceives and regulates pain, it is difficult to treat. This picture has become somewhat more apparent in recent years, primarily as a result of the 2021 Nobel Prize-winning discovery of skin temperature and pressure receptors that trigger the neurological signals that we understand to be acute pain. However, chronic pain has always been more complicated, and its connections to conditions like mental health disorders suggest that it has more complex origins.
Another study, which came out on May 22 and was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, offered a glimpse into the brain activity of people who were in constant pain. They found that the brain responds differently to acute and chronic pain.
Instead of depending on traditional brain-scan methods that require complex equipment and can capture short bursts of data, a team of neurologists at the University of California, San Francisco precisely inserted little gadgets into the brains of patients with chronic nerve pain. The devices tracked signals that traveled through two regions of the brain: the orbitofrontal cortex, which has been suggested to play a role in the intensity of pain, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is known to be crucial to the emotional aspect of pain. For a considerable length of time, members followed their symptoms and flares of pain, which the specialists then cross-referred to with quantifiable information given by recordings of brain activity. They discovered that neural activity lasted longer in the orbitofrontal cortex than in other regions, indicating that some of the current medications used to treat chronic pain might not be providing the most effective relief.
The researchers came to the conclusion that brain activity could be used to predict and measure waves of chronic pain. In contrast, the Norwegian study serves as a useful reminder that lifestyle interventions will always play an important role in treating some chronic diseases.
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