Chronic pain may impact how your brain processes emotions

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In a new study from UNSW Sydney, researchers found people with chronic pain have a disruption to their emotion functions in the brain.

They found that people with chronic pain have an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions.

This imbalance could be making it harder for them to keep negative emotions in check—and the researchers think persistent pain might be triggering the chemical disruption.

More than 3 million Australians experience chronic pain, an ongoing and often debilitating condition that can last from months to years.

This persistent pain can impact many parts of a person’s life, with almost half of people with chronic pain also experiencing major anxiety and depression disorders.

Neurotransmitters help communicate and balance messages between cells. While some amplify signals (called excitatory neurotransmitters), others weaken them (inhibitive neurotransmitters).

GABA, or γ-aminobutyric acid, is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system.

Its role in the medial prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain where emotional regulation happens—is to help dial down our emotions.

In the study, the team used advanced neurological imaging to scan GABA content in the medial prefrontal cortex of 48 study participants, half of which experienced some form of chronic pain.

The results show that participants with chronic pain had much lower levels of GABA than the control group—a pattern that was consistent regardless of their type of chronic pain.

A decrease in GABA means that the brain cells can no longer communicate to each other properly. When there’s a decrease in this neurotransmitter, our actions, emotions and thoughts get amplified.

While the link between chronic pain and decreased levels of GABA has previously been found in animal studies, this is the first time it’s been translated to human studies.

The team hopes the findings are encouraging for people with chronic pain who may be experiencing mental health issues.

Medication is often used to help treat chronic pain, but there are currently no drugs that directly target the GABA and glutamate content in the medial prefrontal cortex. Instead, medication affects the entire central nervous system, and may come with side effects.

The team has recently developed an online emotional recovery program, specifically targeted at people with chronic pain, as a non-pharmaceutical option for treating the neurotransmitter disruption.

If you care about chronic pain, please read studies about no pain, no gain in exercise for this common artery disease and findings of these 2 things can affect your risk for neck pain.

For more information about pain management, please see recent studies about lower dose of this depression drug can effectively reduce pain and results showing that using marijuana for pain relief may cause these symptoms.

The study is published in the European Journal of Pain. One author of the study is Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin.

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