Chronic pain is now more prevalent in the U.S. than either depression or diabetes. It can be persistent and hard to treat—but two recent studies, one about a potential intervention and another about chronic pain’s origins, shed light on the increasingly common condition.
Research published May 24 in the journal Plos ONE suggests that even though exercise may be the last thing a person living with pain wants to do, it could be a critical element to recovery. Using data from a large Norwegian population study of 10,732 adults, researchers at the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsø analyzed people’s self-reported activity levels and their pain tolerance (measured by submerging people’s hands in ice water and having them rank their pain on a scale). People were surveyed twice, about eight years apart.
Those with more active lifestyles were found to be more tolerant to pain—and the more people said they exercised over the course of the study, the more their capacity for enduring pain grew. When both survey years were taken into account, those who had increased their levels of physical activity in the interim period reported greater pain tolerance over time. It’s possible, the authors write, that moving more frequently could be used as a “non-pharmacological pathway towards reducing or preventing chronic pain.”
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One reason why pain is difficult to treat is because scientists don’t yet fully understand how the body perceives and regulates it. That picture has become slightly clearer in recent years, primarily thanks to the 2021 Nobel Prize-winning discovery of temperature and pressure receptors in the skin that trigger the neurological signals we understand as acute pain. But chronic pain has always been more complicated, and the ties it shares with conditions such as mental health disorders point to more complex origins.
In another study, published May 22 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers glimpsed into the brain activity of people experiencing chronic pain. Their findings confirm that acute and chronic pain trigger different signals in the brain.
Rather than rely on traditional brain-scan methods that require complex equipment and can only capture short bursts of information, a team of neurologists at the University of California, San Francisco surgically embedded small devices into the brains of patients with chronic nerve pain. The devices monitored signals sent through two brain regions: the anterior cingulate cortex, an area understood to be critical to the emotional element of pain, and the orbitofrontal cortex, an area suggested to play a role in pain’s intensity. For several months, participants tracked their symptoms and flares of pain, which the researchers then cross-referenced with quantifiable data provided by recordings of brain activity. They found that neural activity in the orbitofrontal cortex lingered longer than activity in other regions, suggesting that some current medications used to treat chronic pain may not be providing the most effective relief.
The researchers conclude that brain activity could be used to predict and measure chronic pain waves. The Norwegian study, meanwhile, is a good reminder that lifestyle interventions will always be a critical part of addressing certain chronic illnesses.
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