In the United States, back pain is the second most common cause of disability, affecting over 80% of people at some point in their lives.
Back pain is caused by injury from lifting heavy objects, accidents, injuries, or degeneration due to conditions such as herniated discs and sciatica. Even though back pain is extremely disabling and common, not all people experience the same symptoms, and even with people who do suffer the same symptoms, their reactions could be very different. This is due, in part, to their psyche and mood.
In other words, while the anatomy of the spine is truly a spectacle in terms of both form and function, many interconnected and overlapping structures (discs, muscles, ligaments, etc.) in the spine are capable of producing back pain. This often makes it difficult for the brain to distinguish between injury to one structure versus another. In fact, having pain, in general, can rewire your brain, specifically the brain circuits that process emotions. When someone has chronic pain, the related brain activity switches away from the “pain” circuits to circuits that are responsible for processing emotions. That’s why emotions like anxiety often take center stage in chronic back pain and why controlling our emotions becomes that much more difficult but important.
When you have back pain, it helps to understand the psychological factors that impact your pain and your brain. Here is how back pain can affect your mood.
Disrupting the Status Quo
Chronic pain is disruptive, agonizing, frustrating, and incredibly difficult to deal with. So, it is understandable that someone suffering from back pain would be affected not only physically but also psychologically (think, mood and memory).
Many who are riddled with debilitating pain conditions frequently experience symptoms of whole-body soreness, discomfort, depression, and anxiety. Lots of times these patients are unable to exercise, provide for the families, enjoy their favorite activities, or find joy in their regular activities. Anyone of these factors would upset or frustrate the happiest person you know, and those feelings of crippling helplessness don’t add to the equation. Being frustrated with any type of pain, especially back pain, is warranted and not unusual.
Weathering a Pain Fog
According to various research studies, chronic pain impairs the hippocampus, which is a region of the brain that regulates learning, memory, and emotions. This hypothesis was proven correct by Northwestern University, whose evidence published in the April edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that people with chronic pain often experience feelings of brain fog, depression, and anxiety.
Chronic pain impairs and damages the nerve pathways in the brain, in addition to the hippocampus, the region within the temporal lobe, responsible for regulating learning, memory, and emotions. Patients suffering from chronic back pain had smaller hippocampi than those who didn’t suffer from a chronic pain condition.
Researchers speculated that those who suffer from chronic pain with small hippocampal sizes could be due to lack of neuron growth found in this part of the brain. According to the report, the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus is in fact critical for the processing of one’s memory and emotions. Therefore, patients who suffer from chronic pain don’t have this capability, which then can lead to cognitive impairments.
Due to pain affecting one’s mood and emotions, treatment for these diseases now focuses on a comprehensive approach, using interventional pain medicines with alternative therapies, such as manual therapy to promote whole-body wellness.