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How the Brain Responds to Pain

Being injured or hurt from an accident, can leave you with short-term and sometimes long term pain, either physically and emotionally or both. There are various types of personal injuries.

But do you know how the pain affects your brain activity? Check out and learn more from this interactive infographic on how the brain responds to pain.

Click to Launch the infographic How the Brain Responds to Pain

How the Brain Responds to Pain

You know what it’s like to be hurt or injured, but how does your brain react to short-term and long-term pain? Not everything is known about the brain’s behavior, but studies have shown that pain and perception can affect brain activity.

  • 76.5 million Americans reported having a problem with any sort of pain that lasted more than 24 hours in the year 2008.
  • That same year, pain affected more Americans than heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined.
  • In general, there are two types of pain impacting people’s lives:
    • Acute
    • Chronic

Acute Pain

This type of pain is meant to warn and teach you that the experience causing the pain was dangerous and harmful.

  • It occurs when you’re injured and generally goes away when the injury has healed.
  • When you suffer from some sort of acute pain:
    • Skin receptors send electrical signals to the spinal cord and then to the brain.
    • These signals travel through nerve fibers.
    • Some fibers carry signals rapidly.
      • These can alert the brain to sharp pain.
    • Others are web-like and carry signals more slowly.
      • These can alert the brain to a throbbing, aching pain.
    • Once in the brain, signals are directed to the sensory cortex.
      • This is where the pain is interpreted.
    • Some signals go to the motor cortex.
    • Then they travel through the spinal cord to motor nerves.
    • These impulses direct you to get out of the way of the cause of the pain.
    • For example, if you touched a hot stove, you’d move your hand.
  • The brain sends signals to the spinal cord.
    • These messages can affect pain levels.
    • The brain is able to filter out the brain while it addresses other issues.
    • This is why some people have gotten hurt without noticing it.

Chronic Pain

This type of pain lasts for at least 12 weeks or longer after an injury has healed.

  • It can sometimes be a symptom of another condition, and when it’s really bad, it can be thought of as a disease itself.
  • 116 million American adults struggle with chronic pain.
  • When people have chronic pain, the parts of their brain associated with mood and attention are constantly active.
  • A healthy brain has about the same number of regions turned on and off.
    • A brain dealing with chronic pain isn’t always in this equilibrium.
    • The brain ends up being occupied with pain signals.
    • This helps explain why people with chronic pain may suffer from:
      • Depression
      • Anxiety
      • Difficulty Focusing
      • Lack of Sleep
  • It has been recently discovered that chronic pain can also do the following:
    • Cause the central nervous system to rewire and change its structure and function.
    • Lead to the expansion of gray and white matter in the brain.
    • Change the way information is transferred from one area of the brain to another.
  • In general, it’s been shown that chronic pain can affect multiple brain systems, thus causing problems with perceptions and behaviors not directly linked to pain.

Perception of Pain

  • There’s another aspect to the brain’s response to pain, and that’s perception.
  • The brain’s emotional control center, the limbic system, is where the significance of pain is interpreted. The following factors can influence how pain is felt:
    • Upbringing
    • Cultural Practices
    • Genetics
  • How people perceive pain differs between individuals and can depend on:
    • General Health
    • Previous Experience
    • Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
    • Motivation
  • Both romantic love and distraction can actually help to reduce the pain.
    • They work almost equally well.
    • However, they each involve different brain systems.
    • Distraction uses outer cortical brain systems.
    • Love uses brain and brainstem systems involving drives and cravings.
    • These systems are full of dopamine neurotransmitters.

Whether it’s acute pain or chronic pain, it’s been thought that the brain can influence the perception of pain inflicted on the body.

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