One of the worst epidemics afflicting the world can be subtle and hard to see: chronic pain. According to the CDC, more than 50 million people in the United States experience chronic pain. For these 1 in 5 American adults, pain is more than just an inconvenience; even if it isn’t physically limiting, chronic pain can result in depression, anger, and anxiety.
What may be even more worrying than this epidemic of pain is the lack of safe, effective treatment options. As the opioid epidemic continues to grow, researchers and physicians are turning their attention away from a strictly biomedical approach to pain and towards the role of the most powerful organ in our bodies: the brain.
The brain’s role in pain
From an evolutionary perspective, pain helps us to survive. As humans, we use pain to learn about our environment and to get better at avoiding anything that could potentially harm us. It acts as a sort of danger signal, telling us when we get too close to a hot burner, for example. Pain is the brain’s way of signaling something is wrong, but when pain lasts longer than a few months the brain can incorporate it more or less permanently into its predictive models — in other words, our brains can be trained to report pain regardless of circumstance.
As chronic pain persists, this cycle can have an enormous impact on pain severity and frequency. The brain becomes hypervigilant about reporting potentially dangerous stimuli and activating a physiological pain response in the body. This is why chronic pain commonly intensifies with time, and why a patient may start to experience non-dangerous stimuli (like light touch or gentle movement) as painful. The strangest part? This entire process is happening behind the scenes: unconsciously and through no fault of the pain sufferer themselves.
While there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for chronic pain, there are a variety of safe, science-backed strategies that can be used to retrain the way the brain processes pain. There are even apps available that offer a structured, guided program designed for this specific purpose, like Curable.
Curable’s app, guided by its smart coach Clara, offers pain sufferers a way to directly access the tools they need to understand and modify their brain’s role in pain. It provides hundreds of audio, visual, and text activities which work to break the cycle of pain from different angles. All of the exercises in Curable are evidence-based and were developed in partnership with a Scientific Advisory Board of physicians, researchers, and pain psychologists.
There is a great deal of evidence supporting the idea that the activities recommended by Curable and other leading pain experts can be effective. Guided meditation can, for example, reduce muscle tension, stress, and anxiety, which contribute to, and exacerbate, pain.
Once the brain’s role in pain has been addressed and symptoms begin to improve, it also becomes easier for chronic pain sufferers to re-incorporate the healthy habits that pain has interfered with, like exercise and sleep. These habits, in turn, can have their own inherent pain-relieving effects, creating an upward spiral of symptom reduction.
What’s increasingly clear is that while pain isn’t “in our heads,” pain is generated by the brain in response to perceived danger. Once we experience pain for a sustained period, medications can only suppress the sensation — they don’t change the pattern. To break that cycle requires behavioral changes, and new technologies are offering guidance, advice, and specific activities to achieve that. Most importantly for those suffering from chronic pain, they offer the opportunity to take control of our bodies — and minds.