How the Mind Relieves Pain

Researchers are learning more about the powerful role that emotions play in our experience of pain. We spoke with Dr. Laurence A. Bradley, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has published several studies on the association between pain and emotion in arthritis patients.

Q. How do emotions influence the perception of pain?

A. Anxiety and depression can enhance the perception of the severity and unpleasantness of pain in part because the same neurotransmitters that influence mood also influence pain. Emotions may even help influence the function of the immune system. For example, negative emotional states and exposure to stressors can increase the release of proteins produced by the immune system called cytokines that help promote inflammatory responses.

Q. Are there other ways that the mind affects the ability to deal with pain?

A. Many of the brain regions involved in processing the intensity and unpleasantness of pain are also involved processing emotional states as well as cognitive activity such as learning, memory, choosing coping strategies, and other functions involved in managing chronic pain and illness.

Q. So chronic pain may reduce your ability to plan ahead to manage your disease?

A. Yes. Fatigue, sleep disturbance, and difficulty in concentrating often accompany chronic pain. These problems may interfere with one's ability to plan ahead to cope with increases in pain or the worsening of symptoms as well as to take pain medications correctly.

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