Pain experience can be profoundly influenced by emotional states and attentional direction. Multiple brain regions involved in pain processing are also crucial for emotion and attention.
Emotional modulation of pain seems to be controlled by a fronto–periaqueductal grey–brainstem circuit that can increase or decrease pain experience depending on the emotion being experienced: for example, empathy for another's pain can increase an individual's own pain sensation. Attention can reduce pain via distraction and is purported to depend on insula–parietal–somatosensory corticocortical pathways.
Both emotional and attentional modulation of pain can be harnessed by non-pharmacological interventions such as yoga, meditation and the placebo effect. Indeed, even expectation of relief activates descending endogenous opioidergic circuitry.
When pain becomes chronic, structural changes are seen in multiple brain regions involved in emotional and attentional aspects of pain modulation, possibly leading to a diminished ability in pain regulation.
There is also evidence that disruption of endogenous pain modulatory systems by chronic pain alters cognitive and emotional processing in patients with pain, leading to impairments in performance on decision-making and learning tasks.
The neurochemical bases for these changes are not yet well understood, although evidence suggests possible roles for excitotoxicity and neuroinflammation in impaired neuronal integrity and firing properties.
However, successful treatment of chronic pain — such as by hip replacement or back surgery — can reverse the pain-related reductions in grey matter. There are tantalizing hints that psychology-based treatments such as meditation may also act in a neuroprotective manner to prevent or reverse these pain-related changes in brain structure and function.
Chronic pain is one of the most prevalent health problems in our modern world, with millions of people debilitated by conditions such as back pain, headache and arthritis. To address this growing problem, many people are turning to mind–body therapies, including meditation, yoga and cognitive behavioural therapy. This article will review the neural mechanisms underlying the modulation of pain by cognitive and emotional states — important components of mind–body therapies. It will also examine the accumulating evidence that chronic pain itself alters brain circuitry, including that involved in endogenous pain control, suggesting that controlling pain becomes increasingly difficult as pain becomes chronic.
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Preparation of this manuscript was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the US National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
- Descending pain modulatory systems
Networks in the brain involving pathways from the cerebral cortex down to the spinal cord that can lead to inhibition or excitation of afferent pain signals at multiple levels of the brain.
A disorder in which there is widespread pain in all four quadrants of the body for a minimum duration of 3 months. Additionally, at least 11 of 18 specified points on the neck, shoulder, chest, hip, knee and elbow regions show tenderness to pressure.
- Vulvar vestibulitis
A disorder characterized by sensitivity around the vaginal orifice, with pain provoked by contact or pressure.
- Ascending nociceptive pathways
Fibres travelling to the brain from receptors in body tissues that respond to tissue-damaging or potentially tissue-damaging stimuli (nociceptors). They make synapses with second-order neurons in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, which send projections to the brainstem, thalamus or other brain regions. From there, third- and fourth-order neurons send projections to the cerebral cortex.
- Complex regional pain syndrome
(CRPS). A chronic pain condition that can affect any part of the body but most frequently affects an arm or a leg. After what is often a minor injury, such as a sprained ankle, there is an intense burning pain that is much stronger than would be expected for the type of injury. The pain gets worse rather than better with time and is often accompanied by trophic changes, such as altered skin temperature and texture, faster growth of nails and hair and even loss of bone density.
- Iowa gambling task
A psychological task used to investigate emotional decision-making. It involves playing with four card decks in order to win money. Playing with two of the decks leads to more wins than losses, whereas playing with the other decks leads to more losses than wins. Healthy people quickly gravitate to the 'good' decks. Patients with various types of frontal lobe lesions do not learn to preferentially use the 'good' decks.
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Bushnell, M., Čeko, M. & Low, L. Cognitive and emotional control of pain and its disruption in chronic pain. Nat Rev Neurosci 14, 502–511 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3516
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