Even though scientists have studied the brain for centuries, mysteries are still unfolding about how the most important organ in your body works. What we do know is that the brain is highly adaptable, often changing to accommodate environmental conditions, injuries, illnesses, age, and damage. While this is the brain’s greatest strength, it is also its greatest limitation as it interprets and adapts to pain and medication.
All About the Signals
The brain is the epicenter of how you feel pain, which is why scientists who develop pain-relieving medications often focus their efforts there. Every pain you experience from a stubbed toe to a broken bone travels to the brain the same way. Pain receptors send signals through insulated nerve fibers from the site of the injury to a part of the brain called the thalamus which acts like a traffic light, directing the signals to the sensory cortex. Signals that travel quickly are interpreted as sharp pain. Slower impulses that follow are interpreted as a throbbing ache.
Sometimes You Don’t Feel Pain Right Away
While this is happening, the brain judges whether it can filter pain in favor of more urgent matters. If you are in a car accident, you may find you can run around helping other people, unaware that you are bleeding from a gash in your head until the adrenaline begins to subside. This phenomenon is called descending neural inhibitory control and it varies based on a person’s so-called “pain tolerance”.
The Emotional Connection
As if the brain wasn’t busy enough, the limbic system, the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional control, begins to interpret how the person feels about pain. This is influenced by a person’s biology, culture, and upbringing. If you are taught to “walk it off” when you are young, your brain will interpret pain as a challenge to overcome. Many people struggle when their normal physical and emotional response to pain is interrupted by a massive injury or chronic condition. When you cannot react to pain the way you normally would and achieve the same result, you feel trapped, helpless, or even depressed.
Medication & Relief
When pain does not subside immediately, we often turn to over-the-counter remedies for relief. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) relieve pain by reducing inflammation. Topical pain relievers often work to reduce pain in the skin and interrupt the signals it sends to the brain. Acetaminophen and prescription opioids both relieve pain by targeting the way the brain receives pain signals, but in different ways. Acetaminophen reduces the production of chemicals called prostaglandins that carry pain signals to your brain. Opioids bind to pain receptors in your brain, spinal cord or other areas of your body to make your brain think you are not in pain.
While opioids are effective at reducing pain in the short term, long-term use can cause dependence. Your body naturally produces opioids when you experience pain that helps your brain filter pain signals in favor of more important messages. Consistent opioid use can inhibit your body’s natural ability to produce these chemicals while simultaneously causing your brain to require more of them to have the same effect. This is why addressing pain at its root cause through epidural injections, therapeutic nerve blocks and physical therapy is more effective than simply taking opioid medication.
For more information about how your body interprets pain, contact the experts at North Lakes Pain Consultants.