The Link Between Brain Power & Chronic Back Pain

By Jesse Cannone CFT, SPN, CPRS

It should come as no surprise that chronic back pain can negatively affect your life, both physically and mentally. With that can come depression and anxiety over your inability to fully participate in and enjoy your life. Based on what we know about chronic back pain, scientists have assumed that the changes that take place in the brain were only temporary, but recent findings have challenged that assertion. Researchers at Northwestern University have found that chronic back pain can cause long lasting and significant damage to the brain.

This study found that any pain lasting more than six months can cause the brain to age up to twenty times faster than it would under normal circumstances. ¹

Shrinking Violet

We now know that chronic back pain causes the grey matter to shrink. The grey matter is the part of the brain that is responsible for processing information and memory recall. Chronic back pain can shrink this portion of the brain by up to 11 percent each year you suffer from chronic back pain. That fact is astonishing when you consider that a normally aging brain experiences a grey matter loss of just 0.5 percent each year.

A recent study featuring 26 healthy participants with chronic back pain lasting a year or more found that those suffering from chronic back pain in the form of sciatica experienced the largest reduction in grey matter. An interesting point to note from this study is that those subjects with the longest history of chronic back pain experienced the greatest loss of brain matter.

Many patients want to know why chronic back pain causes a reduction in brain power and the best answer medicine can provide is that the pain forces the nerve cells to worker harder. This can become a cyclical problem if the back pain goes untreated, because it then becomes harder to treat, resulting in an even greater loss of brain power.

Driven To Distraction

The Northwestern study isn’t the only study pointing to chronic back pain as a cause for reduced brain power; research conducted at the University of Alberta have found that chronic pain can affect your memory and ability to concentrate and focus. This study, completed at the Multi-disciplinary Pain Centre in Edmonton, Canada, found that more than 60 percent of participants with chronic back pain could not recall basic facts or pay attention for long periods of time.

Researchers tested memory and concentration through a series of computerized tests and neuro-psychological exams on days that were labeled as “pain” and “less pain”. On the pain days, 67 percent of participants exhibited signs of cognitive impairment.

Although the group of subjects was quite small—just 24 participants—researchers are confident the findings were statically significant. 

Short-Term Memory

Another theory to explain cognitive deficits related to back pain is stress. The stress-inducing pain overrides our ability to focus on simple tasks and recall basic memories.

Proof of this is illustrated by a study conducted at Keele University in the United Kingdom. With a sample of 100 participants, researchers looked at the prospective memory comparing those with chronic back pain and those experiencing no pain at all. By using a self-reported questionnaire of memory failure, researchers found that those with the most significant short term memory impairment were those with chronic pain. Long term memory deficits were not reported.

Investigators used something called the Prospective Memory Questionnaire, a self-rating scale that requires users to record the number of times their prospective memory fails in a given period of time. The scale measures three types of prospective memory: long-term habitual, short-term episodic, and internally cued.

Improve Memory

If you suffer from chronic back pain and have concerns about declining brain function and memory, below are a few tips to help you retain as much data as possible.

Read Aloud: Memory recall works best when you state your tasks and events aloud. Even better, create mnemonic devices may also help improve short term memory.

Write It Down: Instead of attempting to remember everything using just your brain, rely on calendars, address books and lists to recall important tasks, dates and activities. Cut down on clutter by maintaining this data with the help of computers, tablets and smartphones.

Review It: Review what you need to recall each day or anything new you have learned, and repeat it until it becomes part of your ingrained memory.

Vitamins: Vitamins are a helpful way to make sure you’re getting essential vitamins and minerals you need to be healthy. While vitamin pills do not effectively retain nutrients, a combination of supplements and dietary sources can help improve memory. Vitamins such as B, C and E and foods that include spinach, melons and berries have been found effective for memory recall.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish that include salmon and tuna have proven effective for improving cognitive function and since the human body doesn’t product it in significant amounts, fish is a great source.

Change It Up: Don’t allow your brain to get used to things a certain way by performing basic tasks in unusual ways. This will allow your brain to exercise rather than operate on ‘auto-pilot’. Use your non-dominant hand to stir or eat or comb your hair. You can also try what is called “neurobic exercises” that forces your brain to work in ways to which it is unaccustomed, such as dressing in the dark.

1. The Journal of Neuroscience, November 17, 2004 · 24(46):10410 –10415

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Filed Under: Back Pain Articles
Written By:  Updated:
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Jesse Cannone, CFT, CPRS, MFT

Jesse is the co-founder and visionary CEO of The Healthy Back Institute®, the world-leading source of natural back pain solutions. His mission as a former back pain sufferer is to help others live pain free without surgery and pharmaceuticals.

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