The Brain on Pain: The Big Picture

Pain is a universal experience and from a survival standpoint, it is vitally important.

Whether you’re touching a burning hot stove or experiencing food poisoning after eating leftovers kept a little too long in the fridge, pain protects us from causing further harm to our bodies or at least limits the potential for damage.

Pain is obviously unpleasant, and that’s the point!

It’s a signal to our bodies to step away from a dangerous situation. However, pain no longer serves this special purpose when it becomes chronic. Pain in fact becomes disruptive when it’s experienced relentlessly, even with no danger in sight, as in the case of chronic pain. And too many of us are intimately familiar with the feeling of chronic pain.

An estimated 20% of the U.S. population—50 million people—suffered from chronic pain in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And, that number may have increased during the pandemic.

Yet, while our experience of pain manifests physically, you might be surprised to know that a big component of the pain experience is actually generated in the brain (and influenced by messages it receives from other parts of the body, like the spinal cord). So while there is a sensory component of pain, there is also an important cognitive component. Here at Eztia, we are excited by new research investigating the brain mechanisms responsible for the pain experience with the goal of developing new brain-based therapies for chronic pain!

While there are several types of pain—the bad kind you experience from a bee sting (nociceptive pain), the protective kind you experience when fighting infection or tissue injury (inflammatory pain), and the dysfunctional kind you experience when your brain and body are no longer in sync (neuropathic pain)—it has become increasingly clear that the mind is a major player in the unique experience of pain. In our Brain on Pain series, we are going to dive deep into what makes up the mind-body connection and how we can tap into the knowledge that the brain and pain are closely related to find relief in an otherwise hopeless place (Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic! But c’mon—pain relief sounds great, right?). 

The Brain on Pain Map: Brain Regions Associated with Pain Processing

It’s not all in your head. The unpleasant experience of pain is in fact associated with a well-defined biological illness process.

The various brain regions involved in central pain processing have specific, understood roles in the anticipation, evaluation, and response to pain. We understand the feeling of pain can be incredibly isolating and debilitating. However, you’re not alone. Famous athletes and artists alike grapple with the debilitating experience of pain, and many have even found ways to channel that pain into incredible obstacle-overcoming stories of athletic and creative triumph in the face of injury.

We recognize that pain can manifest in a variety of ways and that each person experiences and processes pain differently.

Moreover, each and every one of you may be at a different stage of learning about managing your pain. Whether you are well-versed in your pain triggers or just now learning that the experience of pain has a biological basis in the brain, we’re here to make sure you have the tools to make informed decisions about your health and wellness moving forward. 

Knowledge is power: having a good understanding of your pain—namely, what’s causing it and what’s in your control in terms of managing it —can help you localize your symptoms, track improvements, and communicate with your health care providers.
Part of this process involves getting to know the role your brain plays in presenting the experience of pain.

We'll take a closer look at this biological process map in the following articles on specific brain regions in The Brain on Pain series. We’ve even included real-life stories of athletes and artists who exemplify these mechanisms and the ways in which the mind-body connection manifests in reality. 

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