Mind over molecules for arthritis pain management

If you expect something to hurt, it probably will. This simple premise has now shed new light on how we adapt to chronic pain and suggests that so-called “talking therapies” like psychotherapy and meditation could offer relief to millions of people suffering from arthritis and other disorders.

A new study has shown that people with chronic pain from osteoarthritis may process pain differently from healthy people, causing it to feel more severe than the physical damage might suggest. The difference is in how we interpret the pain signals that we receive from an injured body part and in our expectations for pain that we know is coming.

Researchers from the University of Manchester in the UK used MRI technology to compare brain activity across arthritis patients, fibromyalgia patients and healthy controls who were all exposed to brief pulses of heat from a laser. They found commonalities in brain activity between people with fibromyalgia and arthritis in two brain areas: the insula, which is involved in consciousness and perception, and the prefrontal cortex, which is important to planning and decision-making.

The same researchers have previously shown that safe, inexpensive talking therapies can help to change the way we perceive pain, which suggests that such therapies may be more effective than pain-killers in helping people find relief from these debilitating conditions.

(Source: European Journal of Neuroscience, 2014; 39 (4): 663.)

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