For those who live with pain, stress management might be the key to help relieve chronic pain

By Lisa Davis

For people who live with chronic pain conditions like back pain and arthritis, stress management may be vital to managing their health. This is particularly important for people with a smaller-than-average hippocampus, as these individuals seem to be particularly vulnerable to stress. (The hippocampus is a major component of the human brain and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation.) These are the findings of a study by Dr. Pierre Rainville, PhD in Neuropsychology, Researcher at the Research Centre of the Institut universitaire de griatrie de Montral (IUGM) and Professor in the Faculty of Dentistry at University de Montral, along with tienne Vachon-Presseau, a PhD student in Neuropsychology. The study appeared in Brain.

“Cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, is sometimes called the ‘stress hormone’ as it is activated in reaction to stress, explained tienne Vachon-Presseau. Our study shows that a small hippocampal volume is associated with higher cortisol levels, which lead to increased vulnerability to pain and could increase the risk of developing pain chronicity.

The study included 16 patients with chronic back pain and a control group of 18 healthy subjects. The study’s goal was to analyze the relationships between four factors:

  1.  Cortisol levels, which were determined with saliva samples.
  2.  The assessment of clinical pain reported by patients prior to their brain scans (self-perception of pain).
  3.  Hippocampal volumes measured with anatomical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  4.  Brain activations assessed with functional MRI (fMRI) following thermal pain stimulations.

The results showed that patients with chronic pain generally have higher cortisol levels than healthy individuals. The research also shed light on the neurobiological mechanisms of the important relationship between stress and pain. Whether the result of an accident, illness or surgery, pain is often associated with high levels of stress. The study’s findings are useful in that they open up avenues for people who suffer from pain to find treatments that may decrease the impact of stress and perhaps even prevent chronicity. To complement their medical treatment, pain sufferers can also work on their stress management and fear of pain by getting help from a psychologist and trying relaxation or meditation techniques,” said Dr. Pierre Rainville.

For ways to lower your stress, read our story on Tips to Reduce Stress and Anxiety. You can also share your own tips for relaxation in our Community, where those who live with pain share and discuss their strategies for living full lives.

 

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