What pain does to your brain

More than 76 million Americans deal with severe, chronic pain that zaps their energy, steals their quality of life and makes them generally miserable.

Chances are, you or someone you love is one of them.

Now, the causes of this widespread chronic pain are many — migraines, back pain, cancer-related pain, fibromyalgia, arthritis pain, nerve pain. But regardless of what’s causing your pain, one thing is for certain…

Chronic pain not only makes you miserable and prevents you from living your life — it puts you at risk for other health problems too…

In fact, researchers recently found that severe, ongoing pain takes a serious toll on your brain health, setting you up for one of the most devastating age-related brain diseases around — dementia.

This is your brain on pain…

In a 12-year study, researchers from the University of California- San Francisco found that people who frequently suffered from moderate to severe pain experienced a quicker decline in cognitive ability as they aged.

In fact, of the 10,000 study participants they analyzed, those who suffered from chronic pain saw their memory function decline 9.2 percent faster than those who didn’t deal with daily pain. Chronic pain sufferers also had a higher risk of eventually developing dementia.

So, based on these results, chronic pain is causing negative changes in your brain that lead to memory loss or even full-blow dementia. But what exactly is going on in your brain when you’re lying on the couch writhing with pain?

Well, researchers are still trying to figure that out, but they have a few guesses…

When you’re in severe pain, it tends to consume your attention. You can’t think about or focus on anything else. Researchers think this could interfere with the brain’s ability to convert information into long-term memories.

Another theory revolves around stress. Chronic pain could trigger stress pathways in your brain. And you know how closely stress is tied to disease risk… including dementia risk.

Of course, researchers admit the brain-damaging effect of chronic pain could also be caused by the pills chronic pain sufferers are popping… opioids. That wouldn’t be a surprise considering the many side effects that come from ongoing opioid use…

Then again, in one study, chronic pain sufferers who took non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs like aspirin instead of opioids also had an increased dementia risk. Of course, NSAIDs have been linked to many health risks in their own right.

So is it attention interference? Stress? Opioids? NSAIDs? Unfortunately, the mystery continues…

Save your brain by taming chronic pain

If you’ve ever gone to your doctor in search of a solution to your chronic pain, you know that he or she doesn’t have much to offer besides prescription pain pills. Alternative medicine, on the other hand, does have a wide array of options that could improve or even get rid of your chronic pain for good…

You can try herbal anti-inflammatories like ginger, turmeric and capsaicin. You can try body-based therapies like massage, acupuncture, acupressure and chiropractic adjustments. Or you can try mind-based therapies like progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback or guided imagery. All are proven to alleviate chronic pain.

It may be a process of trial and error to figure out what works best for your ongoing pain. But if you find a natural health practitioner who’s willing to help you sort through the options, you’ll be on your way to a life free from chronic pain… and hopefully dementia too.


  1. Safely Managing Chronic Pain.” — NIH Medline Plus. June 5, 2017.
  2. Chronic pain linked to increased risk of dementia in study of older adults.” — MedicalXpress. Retrieved June 5, 2017.
  3. L. Whitlock, et al. “Association Between Persistent Pain and Memory Decline and Dementia in a Longitudinal Cohort of Elders.” — JAMA Internal Medicine, 2017.
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.