It’s All In Your Head? Controlling Pain Through the Mind-Body Connection

Calming a frantic person, whether he or she is dealing with worries, sadness or even chronic pain, is a pretty tall order. About one in three Americans — more than 116 million people — lives with long-lasting pain that never seems to go away.

Here’s the thing: When pain becomes persistent, even after a person’s underlying problem has been treated or the catalytic injury has healed, it is considered chronic. Doctors and researchers are finding that even after a patient’s injury is no longer present, there are significant changes in the brain and spinal cord that cause pain to become amplified and ongoing. Further research is investigating the response of pain-control systems in the brain that regulate and modify how much pain we feel.

As it turns out, simply believing that a pill or medication will relieve pain is often enough to cause the brain to release its own natural painkillers to bring about relief. Neuroscience is proving that the placebo effect is actually quite powerful.

So, the question begs, if modern neuroscience is showing us that our brains can regulate how pain is experienced, is it possible to manipulate the mind enough to endure an unbelievable amount of pain without feeling an unbearable amount of suffering? Can we truly fake it until we make it?

Pain has always served an evolutionary purpose. Its essential function is to warn us that something isn’t quite right in the body, but when we’re talking about chronic pain, it’s a different story. The only function it serves is to keep us in constant aching agony. Without a root cause, this sort of pain is thought to be a disease of the central nervous system that results when there’s a malfunction in the brain and spinal cord.

Perhaps the complexity of aches and pains is seeded in the fact that there is no single pain center in the brain to target. Instead, neuroimaging has shown that pain is represented in a network of about 10 areas in the brain, which transmit information back and forth. These areas form a pain-processing neuromatrix. It is centered on the parts of the brain related to our sense of touch, which is what creates the actual feeling and sensation of pain.

Additionally, this network is thought to be divided into two systems that communicate with each other: One perceives pain, and one regulates or modulates pain. Research suggests that when pain occurs, it’s the result of either an overactive pain-perception system or an underactive pain-regulation system.

But here’s the fascinating part: Both of these systems can be activated by stress, as well as belief. The brain will eliminate the sensation of pain — via its own pain-fighting endorphins — if it believes it is being given relief, even when it isn’t. This phenomenon is what is commonly known as the placebo effect.

In a published study led by Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta at the University of Michigan Medical School, 14 participants had a stinging saltwater solution injected into their jaws, after which they underwent brain positron emission tomography (PET) scans. They were then each given placebo painkillers and told that they would positively relieve their aches. The subjects immediately felt better. Their scans showed that this was indeed true, because parts of the brain that release endogenous opiates lit up. In other words, belief became reality.

“We looked at the response of pain-control systems in the brain,” Zubieta said. “We observed that a placebo that was believed to be an agonistic agent was able to enhance the release of these anti-pain endogenous opioids.”

Additionally, “there was more relief in response to this inactive medication as a function of belief,” he stated. “In fact, in some areas of the brain, the release was related to how much they believed the drug was going to be effective.”

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