Control Your Pain, Improve Your Memory?

Chronic pain can affect memory and concentration. Fight back.

Got chronic pain? It may be changing your brain. But you can protect your memory by treating the pain.

Just last year, Dutch researchers found that people with chronic pain have memory problems. They do worse on tests for both working memory (remembering what you’ve read, following directions, taking multiple choice tests) and episodic verbal memory (remembering what people say to you and what you say to them). Now we’re learning why. Is it because pain distracts attention? Or a side effect of pain meds? Both may play a role, but new studies point to a more profound effect: Pain changes your brain.

The hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory, is small in people with chronic back pain, as well as other complex pain conditions, found Chicago scientists. In animal studies, they also found that chronic pain affects the ability to form new nerve cells and send brain messages effectively.

“The physiology of the brain may well be affected by chronic pain,” says study head A. Vania Apkarian, Ph.D., professor of physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “If you experience chronic pain, your brain may be so occupied with remembering the pain that it doesn’t perform other memory processes normally.” Different kinds of pain may affect memory differently. “People who have fibromyalgia may have different memory deficits than people who have chronic low back pain.”

How can you protect your memory when you have chronic pain? “The best advice is to control your pain as much as you can with whatever methods work best for you,” says Dr. Apkarian. “Multiple labs are now showing that the brain reorganization that we see over and over again is at least partially reversible when the pain is diminished or eliminated.”

He believes the new knowledge will lead to better treatments. “Studies are underway to use the new information that we have about brain circuitry in people with chronic pain to create new and better treatments that will likely result in better outcomes for people with chronic pain in the future.”

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