The Brain and Pain: What is Happening? How Does Medication Impact Pain?

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Special Projects Coordinator at Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope

Brain impulses. Thinking prosessPain is something that is universal in nature – we have all experienced it at some point, in some fashion or another. The mechanism of how our brain registers pain is critical to helping our bodies respond to stimuli and alerting us to stimulation that is affecting us, negatively or positively.

Scientists have been able to uncover that the experience of pain is in fact multifactorial and impacted by several factors, including cognition, genetic factors, emotions, and neurobiology (or structure changes in the brain). Understanding the response of pain in the brain can help give greater comprehension into the role of medication treatment for pain management.

A Basic Understanding of the Nervous System

To understand how our body and brain register pain, it is important to begin with a basic understanding of the nervous system in the human body. Our nervous system consists of two main parts, including the spinal cord and the brain. These two main parts make up the central nervous system in the body.

The peripheral nervous system includes sensory and motor nerves, which are critical parts of relaying and communicating information to the brain and receiving messages from the entire body. Different nerves throughout the body respond to varying forms of stimuli. For example, some nerves are able to detect lighter forms of stimuli, such as touch. Other nerves are able to sense injury and deep pressure.

The Spinal Cord

stethoscope on white backgroundThe spinal cord serves as a central hub in that it transmits signals to and from the brain while receiving messages from sensory and motor nerves. Messages that are transmitted to the spinal cord help translate into spinal reflexes, which often cause the body to respond to the source of stimuli or pain.

For example, if you placed your hand on a hot stove, the nerve signals transmitted to the spinal cord, which enable reflexes that cause you to respond to the pain by moving your hand from the source of stimuli.

Signals continue to get transmitted through the spinal cord to the brain, in which the brain can then process the information of the pain stimulus and subsequent signals. It is at this point that emotions become associated with pain, as signals are processed in the limbic system of the brain, which is associated with the emotional part of the brain. This is why we sometimes react to painful sensations emotionally.

How Painkillers Work Against Damage to the Nerves

This process can be influenced by various factors. For example, if there is any damage to nerve endings, spinal cord, or brain, this can distort the interpretation of painful stimuli by the nervous system of the body. Painkiller medications work and function by interfering with pain messages that are sent from nerve endings back to the brain.

This interference may occur at the site of the injury, within the spinal cord, or within the brain – depending on the type of function of the medication. Painkiller medications can be bought over the counter, such as Aspirin, or are available through a doctor’s prescription. Some of the most common classes of prescription painkillers include Opioids, which can be highly addictive.

Working with Your Doctor to Find Pain Solutions

Young doctor woman with stethoscope isolated on grey backgroundIf you have been suffering with any form of pain, it is important to work with your doctor to find out if medications may be a helpful form of treatment and management of your symptoms. If you have struggled with an addiction or have recovered from an addiction to drugs or alcohol, be sure to mention this to your doctor.

You may consider alternative forms of pain management that may not be as addictive in nature as painkillers. As with any medication, it is important to discuss all side effects with your doctor and determine if a potential painkiller you may take might interact with any current medications you are using.

Medications can be a helpful aspect of pain management but should be approached with caution and the discretion of a medial doctor and pharmacist. Be sure to work with your treatment team and healthcare professionals to determine what is right for you.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What are your thoughts on how medications impact pain? How have medications been helpful or harmful to you as you attempt to manage any physical pain that you have experienced in your life?

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 1st, 2015
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