The Latest Science on Chronic Pain Is Fascinating

Experts can even predict who’s likely to suffer or recover, based on brain structure and personality

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
14 min readDec 16, 2019

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Photo: PORNCHAI SODA/iStock/Getty Images Plus

TThe mysteries of chronic pain have proven as frustrating and persistent as the suffering of some 50 million U.S. adults who deal with it. Caused by everything from injuries and strokes to arthritis and diabetes, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all, chronic pain affects 20% of the adult population, with 8% saying it frequently interferes with work and life.

While no comprehensive cures are in sight, the latest research reveals chronic pain is largely a mental and emotional construct, a phenomenon of perception rather than merely of biology, and one that can lock in and vex its victims for reasons science is finally starting to understand.

Researchers are putting together biological and psychological pieces of a pain puzzle that holds promise for targeted treatments that are tailored to specific types of pain, individual brain biology and even different personalities. Pain meds and surgeries are often no better at alleviating chronic pain than placebo pills and pretend surgeries, frustrating physicians and patients alike. Solutions may include new medications, but will almost surely also involve a range of promising alternative remedies, from acupuncture to exercise, diet to mindfulness.

Your brain on pain

Pain eludes a simple, useful definition, largely because it comes in so many forms and is so subjective. The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) calls it “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience.” There are two main types:

  • Acute pain, as from a cut, sprain, bruise or burn, is relatively easy to identify and treat.
  • Chronic pain is characterized by pain that lasts beyond normal healing times, typically a few months, according to the IASP.

The sources and mechanisms of chronic pain are “dramatically different” from those of acute pain, say Vania Apkarian, PhD, who runs a pain clinic at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. For a long time, chronic pain was thought to be directly linked to injury or illness, yet scientists now know that only…

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB