If you’re told your pain is all in your head, don’t freak out. This is actually hopeful news for pain sufferers. (Getty Images)
There’s promising news on the horizon for those who suffer from chronic pain.
Researchers from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, The Neuro, at McGill University have discovered a key finding regarding the origins of neuropathic pain (otherwise known as nerve pain, which occurs when nerves in the central nervous system become injured, as defined by the American Chronic Pain Association).
It’s understood that damaged nerve fibers are ultra-sensitive, which in turn, send incorrect messages to the parts of the brain associated with pain. In this study, which was published in a recent issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, investigators focused on one particular region — the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) — which is the area of the brain that is the most stimulated during times of pain.
“We found that changes in HCN channel function (hyperpolarization-activated cyclic nucleotide-gated channels, a group of protein “messengers”) is an important mechanism linking chronic pain to abnormal activity of the ACC during chronic pain states,” Steven Cordeiro Matos, a Ph.D. student in study author Dr. Philippe Seguela’s laboratory at McGill University, tells Yahoo Health.
The reason: They observed that “blocking the HCN channels reduced the hyperexcitability of the ACC and caused pain relief,” states Cordeiro Matos. “So a future treatment could potentially help alleviate the chronic pain that patients suffer from, if the pain is neuropathic in origin.”
He further explains that those who may benefit in the future include people suffering from chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, as well as those recovering from a traumatic accident. “The chronic pain we investigated in the study results from disease or trauma to the nervous system,” he says. “And this damage can occur anywhere along the nervous system — the peripheral nerves, spinal cord and even in the brain.”
Other possible candidates include those who suffer from chronic back issues. “Many adults suffer from lower back pain and it can be caused by a variety of problems with any parts of the interconnected network of spinal muscles, nerves, bones or tendons,” he adds. “So yes, compression or injury to a spinal nerve root could be a cause of lower back pain.”
And while the “average” person recovering from surgery may be in pain, it’s usually temporary and due to muscle and skin wounds, as well as inflammation. “However, anyone undergoing surgery also runs a risk of nerve damage from prolonged compression, stretching or bruising of a nerve,” says Cordeiro Matos. “And the pain can persist after the surgical wound has healed. This would also be described as neuropathic pain.”
He concludes that the next step in their research would be to investigate how emotional, psychological and cognitive factors can influence pain perception on a molecular level.
“We know that patients who suffer from chronic pain experience impairment of their working memory and difficulties focusing on certain tasks,” states Cordeiro Matos. “Moreover, chronic pain patients may suffer from affective disorders (e.g. anxiety and depression) and in turn, anxiety may increase the likelihood of chronic pain development. Again, this may pave the way for new avenues of research focusing on possible therapeutic approaches to treat the debilitating cognitive and affective symptoms linked to chronic pain.”