How the brain processes and maintains psychogenic pain is the subject of this, the fifth post in the series on the close association between psychological stress and psychogenic pain. Hope is hard to come by for swift and lasting relief of chronic back pain, muscle pain, headaches, migraines, stomach pain, and other stress-related conditions. Medication can help but carries the dangers of addiction or dependency. Non-medical remedies do exist and can work well, but may not be as well known or easy to apply. So the pain continues without relief in sight. And then there is the credibility gap.
Unbelievable Pain That Is Hard To Believe
Even though there is no diagnosable medical condition in the body, and even though
the physical injury that may have originated the pain is now healed, the pain is real. Unexplained. Mysterious. Intense. This is hard to accept by the sufferer, by family and friends, by physicians and pharmacists. There is no “proof” of its existence or intensity that anyone can see. This apparent credibility gap, in itself, creates additional stress to the pain sufferer, which (you guessed it) creates even more pain.
The best illustration, and the best indirect proof that psychogenic pain is real, is offered by “phantom limb” pain, a well-known condition not uncommon among amputees. Significant pain is felt in an arm or a leg that has been amputated. Clearly, there can not be anything wrong with a limb that is no longer there—yet this pain can be excruciatingly intense. What’s going on? What we know about phantom limb pain is that it is created by overly sensitized nerve endings that stop at the point of amputation, but continue to transmit previously learned and now outdated pain information along “stuck” pathways to the brain, as if the arm or the leg was still there. These pathways produce a continuing cycle of pain that can last for months, years, or even decades.
A similar phenomenon of “stuck” pathways takes place in psychogenic pain. Let’s see how it works.
How the Brain Processes Psychogenic Pain
Psychogenic pain is produced when overly sensitized nerve pathways are established between the brain and certain parts of the body, which may be initially provoked and later maintained by a continuing psychological stressor. The nervous system learns to process psychological distress along these neural pathways (exactly why this happens we aren’t quite sure) and the longer the stress goes unattended, the more sensitized and overactive these peripheral nerves become, producing significant amounts of pain to the muscles, the head and other parts of the body.
The brain interprets these nerve signals and transforms them into the experience of pain. The event that started this learning process in the nerves may have been an injury or a stressful event earlier in life, or the pain may just appear without any directly verifiable reason. Only a careful and detailed look at our current situation and life history can reveal the stressors that may have originated and continue to maintain psychogenic pain.
The Case for Fibromyalgia
Musculoskeletal pain localized in the lower back, shoulders, and arms appears frequently to be unrelated to physiological disease. Fibromyalgia has reportedly become one of the most frequent reasons for patient referrals to rheumatology clinics. It is a disorder that affects many musculoskeletal structures and is characterized by persistent pain, sleep and mood disturbances.
Fibromyalgia origins have been traced to stuck pain pathways in the central nervous system, which cause decreased levels of pain-reducing serotonin and increased levels of substance P in the cerebrospinal fluid. These pathways are further reinforced over time by a stress reaction to the pain. Just about everyone who has chronic fibromyalgia pain reacts to it with fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, and other negative thoughts and emotions. Anger and sadness specifically have been recently linked to an increase in fibromyalgia pain.
Psychological stressors, negative thoughts and emotions, conscious or subconscious, thus appear to be major causative factors in psychogenic pain and its related syndromes, such as fibromyalgia. The decreased activity, diminished income, difficult relationships that are byproducts of constant fibromyalgia pain do nothing but add to the misery of it all, making the pain-producing nerve pathways even stronger.
In our next and final post on this series we will take a look at the medical and non-medical remedies that have been devised to cure psychogenic pain.
Previously in this series:
- When Stress Hurts: Psychogenic Pain
- When Stress Hurts: Central Nervous System
- When Stress Hurts: Neurochemistry Cognates
- When Stress Hurts: The Psychology of Pain
- Medical and Non-Medical Treatments for Psychogenic Pain