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How The Brain Shapes Pain and Links Ouch with Emotions

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Pain is something that hurts or makes us say "ouch." While pain is temporary for some, others have to deal with continuous pain that have no clear explanation and are frustrated in trying to maintain hope that one day the pain will recede. Chronic pain is an “invisible illness” that has no “quick fix”, leaves many questions unanswered and becomes a threat to overall happiness.

From an evolutionary perspective, pain serves to prevent or minimize damage to the body. Pain signals also interact with areas of the brain involved in physical sensation, thinking, and emotions. Therefore, pain influences our emotions, feelings and behavior. This emotional and suffering component of pain we experience functions to enhance memory and produce empathy for others.

However, mental health disorders amplify pain. They activate agents of the brain associated with pain processing and can facilitate ruminations and fearful focus on the pain. Once pain becomes chronic, pain signals no longer serve their useful purpose in alerting us of danger. Over time it can lead to anxiety, depression and stress. Our brain shapes our perception of pain and learning to control that process may help people with chronic pain.

We overemphasize pain as a biomedical phenomenon that requires a biomedical intervention such as taking analgesics drug. But nonpharmacologic techniques to help patients control how brain processes pain signals have proven to be effective. Alternative therapies in chronic pain management include exercise-based therapies, mind-body therapies and complementary modalities. As Jodi Ettenberg, a writer for The Guardian, spoke of how she dealt with chronic pain: “In the absence of finding a solution to stop feeling pain, I found hope in being able to reframe my attitude toward the pain.” She suggests to actively develop a sense of compassion, acceptance, and gratitude. So if you are relying heavily on pain medications to achieve short-term comfort for long-term pain, try weaning off the drug, change your attitude towards the pain and give alternative treatments a chance!

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