Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Pain as emotion

leave a comment »

Interesting:

I’ve got a new article on the psychology of back pain in the February issue of Best Life (the one with Jeff Gordon on the cover):

From the perspective of the brain, there are two distinct types of pain. The first type of pain is sensory. When we stub our toe, pain receptors in the foot instantly react to the injury, and send an angry message to the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that deals with the body. This is the type of acute pain that doctors are trained to treat. The hurt has a clear bodily cause: if you inject an anesthetic (like novocaine) into the stubbed toe, the pain will quickly disappear.The second pain pathway is a much more recent scientific discovery. It runs parallel to the sensory pathway, but isn’t necessarily rooted in signals from the body. The breakthrough came when neurologists discovered a group of people who, after a brain injury, were no longer bothered by pain. They still felt the pain, and could accurately describe its location and intensity, but didn’t seem to mind it at all. The agony wasn’t agonizing.

This strange condition – it’s known as pain asymbolia – results from damage to a specific subset of brain areas, like the amygdala, insula and anterior cingulate cortex, that are involved in the processing of emotions. As a result, these people are missing the negative feelings that normally accompany our painful sensations. Their muted response to bodily injury demonstrates that it is our feelings about pain – and not the pain sensation itself – that make the experience of pain so awful. Take away the emotion and a stubbed toe isn’t so bad.

Chronic pain is the opposite of pain asymbolia. It’s what happens when our brain can’t stop generating the negative emotions associated with painful sensations. These emotions can persist even in the absence of a painful stimulus, so that we feel an injury that isn’t there. It’s like having a permanently stubbed toe.

Doctors have traditionally focused on the bodily aspects of chronic pain. They assume that a healed body is a painless body. If a patient has chronic back pain, for example, then he is typically prescribed painkillers and surgery, so that the pain signals coming from his spinal nerves are stopped. But the dual pathways of pain mean that this approach only treats half of the pain equation. Unless you find a way to treat the emotional pathway, then the chronic pain will continue.

Alas, the article isn’t online. But researching the piece definitely changed the way I think about my own back. For instance, it’s made me much less concerned with my potential structural flaws – like herniated discs – and much more concerned with my emotional state of mind.

Written by Leisureguy

30 January 2008 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Science

Tagged with

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: