Your brain creates chronic pain

Photo of clouds clearing depicts how innovative treatments can help dissipate chronic pain to optimize wellbeing.

Chronic pain, a condition affecting millions worldwide, is often thought of as a purely physical ailment.

However, recent research has shed light on the crucial role that your brain plays in creating and perpetuating this persistent discomfort.

By understanding the intricate neurological mechanisms behind chronic pain, you can gain valuable insights into its management and potential treatment options.

Brain’s influence on pain perception

Research published in the journal “Pain” in 2016 by Seminowicz and Davis revealed the concept of neuroplasticity as a fundamental contributor to chronic pain. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize its structure and function in response to experience.

In individuals with chronic pain, neuroplastic changes can occur in regions involved in pain processing, leading to an amplified perception of pain.

Moreover, sensitization is a critical process in chronic pain development. In a study published in “Nature Reviews Neuroscience” in 2014, Woolf and Salter explored how sensitization occurs in the nervous system.

It involves heightened responsiveness to pain signals, where normally innocuous stimuli can induce pain.

This hypersensitivity results from changes in the brain’s pain circuits and contributes to the chronicity of pain.

Role of emotions and the limbic system

Your brain’s limbic system, particularly the amygdala, plays a pivotal role in the experience of chronic pain.

The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions, including fear, anxiety, and stress.

A study conducted by Wiech et al. and published in “Nature Neuroscience” in 2014 demonstrated that chronic pain patients exhibit structural changes in the amygdala, leading to an amplified emotional response to pain.

Additionally, the interaction between the limbic system and the brain’s pain-processing regions, such as the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), can heighten pain perception.

A study published in “Pain” in 2018 by Kucyi and Davis examined the connection between the ACC and emotional processing. The findings suggested that the ACC’s role in emotional regulation contributes to the experience of chronic pain.

Expectations and placebo effects

Your brain’s expectations and beliefs about pain can significantly impact the perception of chronic pain.

Research published in “Science Translational Medicine” in 2011 by Atlas et al. demonstrated that patients who expected pain relief from a placebo exhibited reduced pain-related brain activity.

This study highlighted the placebo effect as a manifestation of the brain’s ability to modulate pain perception through cognitive and psychological processes.

Further studies published in “Nature Communications” in 2018 by Geuter et al. explored the influence of positive and negative expectations on pain perception.

The findings revealed that positive expectations can enhance the brain’s natural pain-relieving mechanisms, while negative expectations can increase pain sensitivity.

These results underscore the powerful role that your brain plays in shaping the experience of chronic pain.

Implications for management and treatment

Understanding the brain’s involvement in chronic pain opens doors to novel management and treatment strategies.

By targeting the neurological mechanisms underlying chronic pain, interventions can be designed to alleviate suffering and improve quality of life.

1. Mind-body interventions

Mind-body interventions, such as Cognitive Behavioral therapy (CBT), meditation, and mindfulness, have shown promising results in chronic pain management.

These approaches aim to modify the brain’s response to pain through cognitive and emotional regulation.

A study published in “The Journal of Pain” in 2017 by Garland and colleagues examined the effects of mindfulness meditation on chronic pain.

The results demonstrated a significant reduction in pain intensity and improvements in emotional wellbeing, suggesting the potential of mind-body interventions in managing chronic pain.

2. Neurostimulation techniques

Neurostimulation techniques, such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS), have emerged as promising approaches to modulating the brain’s pain circuits.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) applies magnetic fields to specific regions of the brain to alter neural activity, while Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS) involves the use of electrical impulses on the spinal cord. These techniques aim to disrupt the maladaptive neuroplastic changes associated with chronic pain.

A study published in “Neuromodulation: Technology at the Neural Interface” in 2020 by Eldabe and Buchser reviewed the effectiveness of SCS in chronic pain management, highlighting its potential as a therapeutic option.

3. Pharmacological interventions

Pharmacological interventions have traditionally focused on targeting peripheral pain pathways.

However, with an increasing understanding of the brain’s role in chronic pain, researchers are exploring new approaches that directly influence central pain processing.

For instance, medications that target neurotransmitters involved in pain modulation, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, show promise in modulating the brain’s pain perception.

A study published in “Pain Research and Management” in 2019 by Su and Liao discussed the potential use of Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) in managing chronic pain.

Empower individuals

The emerging understanding of the brain’s involvement in chronic pain has revolutionized our perception of this complex condition.

Neuroplastic changes, emotional processing, expectations, and the interplay between cognitive and sensory systems contribute to the creation and persistence of chronic pain.

By recognizing the brain’s central role, health professionals can adopt innovative treatment strategies that target the neurological mechanisms underlying chronic pain.

By embracing a comprehensive biopsychosocial approach to chronic pain management, healthcare providers can empower individuals to take an active role in their own healing.

Education, support, and personalized treatment plans that address both the physical and psychological aspects of chronic pain can lead to improved outcomes and a higher quality of life.

With this understanding, you can take a more effective and compassionate approach to navigating your chronic pain and strengthening your wellbeing.

Sarno Clinic advances the Dr. John Sarno method for healing chronic pain.


Atlas, L. Y., et al. (2011). Dissociable effects of expectation and opioid addiction history on the neural correlates of pain relief. Science Translational Medicine, 3(102), 102ra93.

Eldabe, S., & Buchser, E. (2020). Current practice and future directions of spinal cord stimulation for chronic pain management: An international survey and discussion. Neuromodulation: Technology at the Neural Interface, 23(4), 423-431.

Garland, E. L., et al. (2017). Mindfulness-oriented recovery enhancement for chronic pain and prescription opioid misuse: Results from an early-stage randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Pain, 18(3), 353-365.

Geuter, S., et al. (2018). Expectations impact short-term memory through changes in connectivity between attention- and task-related brain regions. Nature Communications, 9(1), 1-12.

Kucyi, A., & Davis, Seminowicz, D. A., & Davis, K. D. (2016). Pain enhances functional connectivity of a brain network evoked by performance of a cognitive task. Pain, 157(4), 784-794.

Su, Y. S., & Liao, Z. X. (2019). The efficacy and safety of serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors for the management of fibromyalgia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Pain Research and Management, 2019, 1-11.

Wiech, K., et al. (2014). An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief system. PAIN, 155(10), 2002-2010.

Woolf, C. J., & Salter, M. W. (2014). Neuronal plasticity: Increasing the gain in pain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17(7), 420-431.